Monday, April 29, 2013

Stock Condition Surveys - Part 1 – A Client’s Perspective

Many Client organisations will not have the skills and resources available in-house and will therefore use external consultants for delivery of stock condition surveys due to their scale and complexity.  The choice of consultant is fundamentally important to the success of the survey and clients should be very thorough in their selection and procurement processes
For many years in my professional career I was responsible for advising, organising and managing numerous large stock condition surveys for a range of Local Authorities and Social Housing Providers. The prime motivation for the stock survey usually revolved around stock transfer, strategic planning related to asset management and business plans, or in the case of schools to follow a prescribed method such as the Department for Education and Skills Asset Management Strategy (now the Department for Education).  My involvement would often include helping each of the various clients to understand what they wanted (as there was generally a lack of real understanding), to set the scope of the surveys, to manage and co-ordinate large survey teams and to present the data in an understandable and useable way. 
If you are currently planning for a stock condition survey or maybe you already have one in progress, then there are many different things you need to consider in order to try to ensure that the data collected and indeed the outputs from these are actually what you intend.  I can think of numerous examples where Clients encountered difficulty in managing/coping with the vast amount of data that was produced, and once received, they were not exactly sure what to do with it.  This is why a successful stock survey requires many months of planning and organising.  From a Client organisation perspective there needs to be a well organised strategic approach, establishing precisely what is required and importantly how this will be achieved. The information below identifies some key issues which should be considered:
What is the purpose of the stock survey?
A very simple question which often produces a variety of different answers. The answer to this will actually set the scope of the survey and will decide what outputs are required, so if there is a lack of clarity at this point then the whole process becomes confused. Therefore, will the data be used to plan future work packages, if so, over what period of time? Will the data be used for strategic planning and be incorporated in a business plan? or maybe assessing current and future repairs and maintenance liabilities, or possibly consider statutory compliance or maybe a combination of these. These examples are not exhaustive, however demonstrate the wide range of possibilities that a stock condition survey could be used to achieve.  It is only possible to move onto the next stage of the process once an Client/organisation can provide a clear answer to this question.  Only then is it possible to start to look at the scope of the survey, the attributes to be recorded, the sample size (will this involve cloning?), the required outputs, deadlines and also the available budget (for the condition survey).

I remember one particular organisation I was advising, a Local Authority, who required a stock condition survey for their commercial building stock.  This included buildings such as community centres, libraries, leisure centres, offices and numerous other public buildings.  In total this amounted to approximately 400 different buildings, so not a large stock survey, but challenging due to the diversity of the different buildings.  I became involved at a very early stage and it soon became clear that there were differences of opinion in respect of what was required to be achieved within the client organisation itself.  One particular senior manager was insistent that the data collected should be used for strategic asset planning and also to assist with much lower cost day to day maintenance. This manager was adamant that the survey should record things like door handles, hinges, taps, plugs, sealant etc. therefore taking the required attributes to a ‘micro level’.  I highlighted the consequences of this approach in terms of the high cost of each survey due to the amount of time the surveyor would be on site, the difficulty in consistency of recorded information if you provide surveyors with too many choices, and also the limitations of the hardware at the time.  In the end I was able to steer this particular client down a much more sensible road. This demonstrates some of the challenges that may be encountered, through lack of understanding.

Choosing the right people
Many Client organisations will not have the skills and resources available in-house and will therefore use external consultants for delivery of stock condition surveys due to their scale and complexity.  The choice of consultant is fundamentally important to the success of the survey and clients should be very thorough in their selection and procurement processes.  Many consultants advertise their experience and skills in delivery of stock condition surveys, however there are some important factors that should be considered when selecting consultants for this type of work:
Resources – Based upon what you have detailed in your brief, what resources will the consultant provide to the project to ensure that the data collected will be appropriate and consistent and also achieve the deadline that you have set?  It is important to find out precisely who will be carrying out the surveys (ask for CV’s), and who will be responsible for managing/overseeing the survey.  Consultants will usually calculate their fee based upon the amount of time they are likely to spend on the project and the level of staff that will be needed.  For large stock surveys what tends to happen is that less experienced staff (newly qualified, or those undertaking professional qualification such as APC or sometimes agency staff), are used for the bulk of the surveys and a more senior member of staff is used to oversee the project.  This can work as long as the senior member of staff, undertakes robust quality assurance checks of the data being collected and undertakes continual training throughout the process with the surveyors in order to maintain consistency.  The whole process can easily break down if a consultant does not manage the process in this way and will lead to incorrect/inconsistent data being collected.  This should never be allowed to happen and is something that a Client should explore during the procurement process.
Procurement – All Clients will have a budget available for a stock survey and in fact this is something that helps define the scope of the survey.  If you want a Consultant to understand what you require and you want a reflective fee for their services then you must ensure that your brief is suitably detailed and clear.  This probably sounds obvious, however I have prepared endless tenders for many different types of work, where there briefs provided are so vague or poorly written that it is difficult to understand exactly what the Client is looking for.
Prior to tendering for the ‘main’ stock survey, my advice would be to invite a number of Consultants to tender for a ‘pilot survey’.  This will enable each Consultant to demonstrate their resources and capabilities for a small number of surveys, as well as finding out what works, or maybe does not work, before ploughing on with the bulk of the surveys.  This exercise could form the first part of the selection process, which should also be preceded by Consultant interviews. This may sound like a lengthy process, however it is extremely important to appoint the right Consultant. This approach may well reduce the possibility of serious issues arising either during the survey process or when you come to rely on the data that has been collected.

Consultant’s Fee – Always analyse precisely what the Consultant has included with their fee.  If your tender documentation, including your survey brief are sufficiently detailed then the Consultant should have provided a fee to reflect what you have asked for.  If not, and the consultant has included their own ‘inclusions or interpretations’ then this will make the fee very difficult to compare with other tenders. This should not happen, as this could invalidate a tender, depending upon the method in which tenders were issued. In any event there needs to be a detailed tender analysis in order for a Client to satisfy themselves that the Consultant can provide precisely what they want for the fee they have provided.  Never be tempted to look at the headline fee alone, as without looking you cannot know what (or what is not) included within that fee.
In next week’s article I will consider stock condition surveys from a Consultant’s viewpoint and provide some examples of how I used to manage large stock surveys.
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