Phil Clifford, Fleet & Technical Manager at St Edmundsbury Borough- Fleet Manager: Simply a job or a recognised profession?
In the late 1970s, industrial unrest was commonplace. James Callaghan was threatening to remove state subsidies from British Leyland unless it put an end to strikes which were costing them £10m a week and, late in the year, the Fire Brigades union called a national strike in support of a 30% pay rise, this against an annual inflation rate of over 15% and record rates of unemployment.
Most district and borough councils employed Transport Managers (or Superintendents). Many of these managers were ‘Old School’ and enjoyed ‘Grandfather Rights’ to the necessary Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC).
My own manager at the time was autocratic and, to me, displayed no sense of professionalism – so much so that I soon decided to move on realising that promotion prospects were minimal.
Councils of the day tended to have larger operations and provide more services than those of today. Refuse collection, Street Cleansing, Highway Maintenance, Street Lighting, Social Housing, Parks and Gardens, Sewerage and drainage and fleet management/vehicle maintenance. My recollection however is that efficiency was not high on the agenda and, if you overspent, you just went cap in hand to the relevant committee to ask for a supplementary budget.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power and set her sights firmly on reducing public sector costs and spent the next few years developing and imposing Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT). When introduced, CCT was controversial and seen by many as a ‘sledge hammer to crack a nut’. It did however set the scene for many years to come until the Labour government of Tony Blair abandoned CCT in favour of ‘Best Value’.
Unfortunately the process of CCT resulted in large numbers of council staff either being made redundant or forced into early retirement. When this affected fleet managers the void in skills left behind often resulted in the role being given to remaining (younger) members of staff – many of whom had little or no experience, let alone qualifications!
The basics of fleet management have not changed much though. Legislation continues to evolve and standards of vehicles have improved almost beyond recognition. In the early 80s it was common to buy a refuse truck and everyone expected to have teething problems with it for several months.
Not so today.
The modern public sector fleet manager needs a considerable skill set. On the assumption that services have not been transferred to the private sector he/she will probably need a Certificate of Professional Competence. He/she will need to be expert in procurement and will have to closely monitor compliance particularly in light of increased scrutiny by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA). Penalties for non-compliance can be devastating not least because the fleet manager could effectively be ‘struck off’ and prevented from practising for any other employer.
The rules for public sector drivers are also very different from those for the private sector. Councils ‘enjoy’ many exemptions and derogations from national and EU legislation however managing those exemptions can often be an administrative burden particularly when some operations cannot claim the exemption.
Today’s fleet managers need to know these rules and exemptions. They must have the ability to implement and ensure the correct rules are followed. Failures, which result in police or VOSA interventions, can be costly for both drivers and fleet managers.
Computerisation has undoubtedly been the major influence on how fleets are managed today. The essentials are fuel monitoring and issuing systems, tracking and telematics, and web based access to DVLA, VCA, EuroNCap, MIDAS, VOSA Operator licensing online however the cornerstone of these systems must be a robust fleet management software package which must be regularly updated and well supported by the software provider. These are all very powerful and useful management tools but the biggest impact on fleet itself has been the computerisation of vehicle engines, transmissions and body control systems.
Fleet managers should command respect but of course this has to be earned. The key to this is to be involved and to be seen as the bringer of solutions not problems. Compliance management is complicated when you consider that both the vehicle needs to be right and also the driver.
Public sector fleet managers are in a unique and advantageous position in that they (generally) are not in competition with each other. This does facilitate great opportunities for benchmarking and sharing of ideas and best practice.
The Public Authority Transport Network (PATN) is just one example of how this can happen. Created over a decade ago and hosted by the Freight Transport Association, members have free access to a private web based network and information exchange. Spin-off groups have been successful over the years in producing industry standard Best Practice Guides, the first being the publication in 2005 of the RCV Procurement and Operation Procedures guide. In 2008 another group produced the first industry standard for the inspection of Hackney and Private hire vehicles. Members have also been able to influence Dft policy with the help of the FTA member services team.
One major difference between public and private sector fleet management operations is the need for public sector managers to rigidly follow EU Procurement rules when buying new vehicles. These can be onerous but the development of national, or Pan-Government, frameworks has given the manager a powerful set of tools to reduce the bureaucratic burden. Procurement is however an area where the skill of the professional fleet manager comes to the fore. A detailed set of requirements is essential in drawing up a specification but equally important are the evaluation criteria. Get this part wrong and the process may lead you to buy the cheapest and not the best.
Contracting out of fleet provision is a thorny issue. Organisations often think that outsourcing a function similarly outsources the responsibility for that function. Should a fleet be outsourced the role of the fleet manager becomes all the more important to safeguard the organisation by ensuring the contractor is following the rules and not cutting corners to reduce overall cost.
People often talk about light goods vehicle fleets and heavy goods vehicle fleets as if they are something different. The reality is that a vehicle, irrespective of size and design, needs careful management. A proactive fleet manager therefore will actively look to control grey fleet, pool cars, leased cars, LGV and HGV classing them all as ‘Fleet’.
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