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Transforming public services through effective, compliant estates


5 min read Partner content

For many very good reasons, regulation now underpins and shapes our public services and the public realm that supports them. These rules are there to protect the public, to provide a measure for performance and of course to ensure that any investment made actually delivers value for money.

Yet too often compliance with an increasing number of regulations surrounding our vital public services is seen as costly, unnecessary bureaucracy that hinders progress and blocks innovation. In short, for many people in the asset management business, compliance is seen as a dirty word.

That view could not be further from reality. In truth, for modern public asset operators and managers, regulation must instead be seen as an enabler; it is the carrot that drives performance and improves outcomes, not the stick that punishes failure.

Of course, compliance is sector specific. What passes for excellence in a school may well be unacceptable in a prison. And it is also hugely dependent upon the age and sophistication of the asset being managed. What constitutes excellence in a brand new prison block may be radically different in a 150 year old Victorian cell block complex.

However, whether managing a new office complex, a busy, crowded school building, or an aging prison block, a compliant estate is without question a more effective estate. It is an estate that not only delivers the service as intended but that also enables the occupants to truly focus on carrying out their roles to the best of their abilities.

It is this focus on outcomes that really makes the difference. Successful asset managers must look at every issue and every challenge through the eyes of both the building operator and the building user. The vital questions, therefore, become less about how to meet the regulators check list and more about what the teachers, pupils, prison officers and inmates really need from their buildings.

In short, they must ask how that properly managed building estate can help to provide a better overall service outcome through happier, more relaxed building occupants and more motivated operational staff.

Our experience from running a large part of the UK’s prison services clearly demonstrates this reality. As perhaps one of the most highly regulated, high pressure environments in the public or private asset estate, failure to comply has huge consequences. Getting the asset management wrong is usually expensive, is often very inconvenient and time-consuming, and can sometimes, literally, create life or death situations.

For example, while a school might require its door hinges and locks to be checked once a year, a prison requires that they are checked twice a week or more to ensure they are not tampered with or compromised.

Equally, it is crucial that emergency systems such as anti-barricade devices work on every cell to protect prisoners from self-harm or injury and that heating and ventilation systems are functioning to ensure that prisoners are not confined in conditions likely to increase what is already a stressful incarcerated environment.

The current pressure on the public purse makes compliance even more important.

Embracing this value from compliance across the asset portfolio can also deliver massive dividends in terms of short and longer term outcomes for the prison service. The built environment estate exists, after all, to serve the operation not the other way around. A properly run, well organised and compliant prison estate means that staff can get on with their primary task of containing and rehabilitating the prisoners.

The mission for any public asset manager or public service operator must therefore be to achieve a level of compliance at which maintenance is not carried out simply for the sake of repairing break-downs. Success is reaching the point where each maintenance intervention is actually seen as a positive investment in the asset, carried out not just to uphold the status quo but to enhance the environment - for those being held in the facility and those employed to manage it.  

The goal must therefore be to remove facilities management from the day-to-day operational agenda of schools, offices and prisons so as to enable the true operational needs of those organisations to be elevated and brought into focus.

A teacher who isn’t struggling with broken chairs or a poor Information Technology set up is more likely to focus effort on the job of teaching and inspiring students. A prison officer not having to worry about obsolete surveillance equipment, inoperative doors or poor building ventilation is more likely to be able to focus on their day job of managing prisoners.

The current pressure on the public purse makes compliance even more important. There is no question that constrained budgets across the public sector make the delivery of every public service more difficult. But this should not be an excuse to shy away from meeting operational standards.

Instead, a renewed focus on - and investment in - the creation and maintenance of compliant public assets will, without question, enable these constrained budgets to be targeted at the right areas and enable the overall service outcomes to improve.

With a compliant and effective built environment estate, operators are freed up to do what they do best – to teach and inspire our children in schools, to deliver the best public services from public offices and to protect and rehabilitate our prison populations. They are freed up from day to day worries about physical assets and more able to spend public money creating the most effective outcomes for society. 

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