The experiences of first Carillion, and then Interserve, have highlighted the fragility of large, low margin public sector service contracts, where individual services are often subcontracted, and where both subcontractors and end user clients can suffer distressing consequences when the contract is no longer financially sustainable.
Commentators are quick to pin the blame for such problems on the pressure of the public purse. But is it as simple as that? Are squeezed margins and poor service the result of under-pricing or just poor management? And, more importantly for cleaning contractors, is the procurement of facilities contracts through single service providers a guaranteed route to solving such problems?
One point of view is that cleaning suffers, standards-wise, more than other services in a TFM contract because of its history as the poor relation of FM. The reason is because TFM contracts are often managed by a ‘hard FM’ person such as an engineer, who is appointed to understand the hard FM delivery.
The logic of this is sound, but the problem comes when it is assumed that because one service, for example M&E, is technically more complex, it is therefore of greater concern to the client than the less technically demanding cleaning. By virtue of their own specialism and priorities, the overall contract manager may not understand the dynamics or importance of cleaning, resulting in a lack of focus and a temptation to let the axe fall disproportionately on cleaning when the pressure comes to cut budgets.
Thinking of it another way, cleaning misses out in a TFM contract because it has no-one to represent it, manage quality and take ownership for its success. Which is where the single service provider comes into their own. Not only do they understand how to deliver the service correctly, but if asked by the client to make savings, a good cleaning contractor who understands the building’s pressure points will trim the contract in a way that minimises the effect on standards.
What is to be done? Well, a preferable alternative to managing several services through TFM is surely to harness the specialist skills of single service providers in a co-operative approach – a building managed by suppliers working in partnership under the guidance of the client’s own Facilities Manager.
The simple fact is that most FM services are becoming more complex nowadays, meaning it is harder to keep pace with change – just think of the way security is currently having to adapt to the risk of terrorism. In these circumstances it is surely better to employ a team of experts using best practice in their fields, rather than a generalist provider, who may in any case just subcontract the work, further depressing margin. If the individual contractors are worth their salt, they will tailor the service to meet the client’s needs in a way that larger TFM contractors often cannot or will not do and will be agile enough to negotiate a cost structure that safeguards their margin.
The fact is, TFM has its place in certain situations. If you are a Facilities Manager running a portfolio of large buildings around the country, with multiple services to manage, you will not be looking to appoint dozens of cleaning, catering, security, and maintenance contractors to meet your needs. But for the single office buildings, universities, museums, schools and shopping centres of this world, a managed portfolio of highly motivated single service providers surely offers the greater prospect of success.