WECA: Where flawed metrics replace informed decisions

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) has recently undertaking their first local bus service tendering exercise to procure replacements for expired contracted services in B&NES and South Gloucestershire. 74 lots for bus services ranging from a single return journey once a week to frequent weekday services were offered for quotation, with services to replace existing contracted routes from September 2021. Summary results have now been published on the gov.uk portal and i have written a further piece with details and analysis of the individual awards.

This was an opportunity for a new organisation to make a fresh start in their tendering system and hopefully embrace the best practice from all their constituent authorities whilst avoiding some of the less productive practicies that some have engaged in.

Embracing Worst Practice
It became clear from when the first documentation arrived that us operators were about to experience a whole new level of bureaucracy. A conservative estimate saw some 275 pages of documentation to either read or respond to, all for the honour of running a bus service for a year, several of which run once or twice a week. As always, with this level of material, there were mistakes and errata dotted throughout, although nothing quite to the standard of North Somerset not telling operators on which days they were expected to provide services. The WECA exercise was at least well scheduled with several months allowed for decision making, proper registration periods and adequate publicity to be issued, although schedules still slipped along the way.

Over the first few days, I raised several questions on the cumbersome procurement system and made notes of several other queries which may be relevant. It quickly became apparent that these would not be answered punctually, and answers eventually came in the form of a summary document a week later. Sadly, this method renders the window for asking follow up questions woefully inadequate, as there is barely any opportunity to gain further clarification before the tendering process closes. This brings us on to the answers themselves. Some questions achieved direct answers, but others were far too woolly and written in a language i have since dubbed “procurementese”. It quickly became apparent that despite specifically referencing sections of questions which were problematic for a small business to answer, few queries would receive a useful answer. Put short – if First, HCT and Stagecoach can produce this sort of material, then everybody can.

The submission questionnaire was full of repetition and gibberish. I lost count of how many times i had to state my name, address and contact details. Nowhere in the documentation does it ask if operators are actually any good at reliable operation bus services, yet if we want questions about our social value to the community or how we can demonstrate equality in our recruitment and promotion processes, there are whole sections to investigate that. The latter section is pretty much unanswerable for a company with three employees that hasn’t had any staff turnover since 2015. Despite a fairly senior member of WECA staff telling me late in 2020 that “It’s not in the interests of WECA or its residents to set things so that SMEs can’t continue to trade. So our contracts will have minimum standards, we will need to adopt a proportionate approach in how they’re applied.“, it was made clear that there was to be no support for small or micro enterprises bewildered by the requirements of this tendering process. Apparently this wouldn’t be fair.

The only possible conclusion is that WECA want big business, not local knowledge.

Sorry, no change given
The most stark issue for me in this process was that operators were not permitted to propose variations to the service timetables or routes, as has always been standard industry practice in a deregulated environment. The approach of engaging and empowering operators to either offer something above the specified service or a schedule which would provide a similar level of service at a lower cost has delivered some good value services to local government over the past few decades. Given that a number of services are being offered in a drastically different format as they are currently run, without an option to provide the existing service (including such examples as services 20A/20C in Bath being split in to two services, service 35 curtailed to run between Kingswood and Marshfield only and service 672 reduced to two journeys in each direction), it seems a strangely dictatorial way to approach it.

Our most productive variation to date perhaps?

I make no secret of the fact that i have secured work for both myself and Somerbus over the past twenty years by proposing some cost effective variations to services, most notably when we took over from Crosville in providing services 4 and 4A in Weston-super-Mare, under contract to North Somerset. For the flexible small operator, services which fit in between other work can be beneficial to all parties concerned.

WECA’s prime interest is Bristol, which is why every system set up by the authority is geared to serve Bristol first before anywhere else is considered, much like the approach which led to the demise of Avon County Council. One size fits all is the mantra of the moment, and if you’re not the same size or importance as the Bristol urban area, then you’re out of luck. The big city needs big bus companies.

All the fun of unfair
But it isn’t just an obsession with the urban area that WECA has inherited from Bristol. Bristol City Council has had problems in their dealings with Public Transport providers for well over a decade, since we were operating service 52. Staff at Bristol have been rarely contactable and even more rarely able to make decisions. Some also specialised in falling asleep during meetings. It feels like WECA have taken this mantle over in the form of inflexibility. Whereas staff at B&NES or South Gloucestershire would have had the confidence to make a decision (or rather to make a strong recommendation to elected members) over two or more differing bids for a bus service contract based upon their expertise and knowledge, the WECA system is now highly metricated. Apparently this is in the interests of “fairness to all operators“.

“Fairness” seems to be a recurring word in correspondence between WECA’s procurement droid and operators. Their interpretation of this concept doesn’t seem to stretch to supporting the small businesses firmly based in the communities they serve. The results of the tendering round have not awarded a single new contract to any operator with fewer than a hundred employees (although a few have been retained by existing providers).

Numbergibber
Forewarning: This is the maths part. You’re welcome to skip this bit if you want. If you do want to skip it, find the end of the blue text.

The formula to analyse each bid is pretty complex. A 70% Price / 30% Quality split is being used. This is being achieved using the following calculations:

For quality, a score of 30 will be awarded to the highest scorer across the following metrics: Service delivery (40%); Complaints procedure (10%); Social value (10%); Equality and diversity (10%); Health & Safety requirements (10%); Environmental considerations (10%) and Business opportunity (10%). Other bidders will then be given a score out of thirty based on how they scored in comparison to the highest scoring bidder – for example if bidder A scores 60 in the quality assessment and bidder B scores 40, then bidder A scores the full 30 points and bidder B will take 20.

(Sadly the “service delivery” section doesn’t ask if you’re an operator who can cope with setting a diversion for a rural bus service which doesn’t miss out half the route and have poor bewildered Eastern European staff wondering where the hell they’re going as the photocopied map they’ve been given is illegible.)

For price, a score of 70 is awarded to the lowest bidder. I’ve attempted to simplify the calculation given in the documentation, but i’m still not sure i’ve grasped what they’re trying to achieve. Anyway, here goes…

In a situation where bidder A bids £43 a year to run a service and bidder B bids £55, bidder A will be awarded a full 70 price points. Bidder B is ((55-43)/43)x100=27.91% more expensive, therefore receives the inverse number of points to this (100-27.91=72.09), which is then translated to a score out of 70 (in this case, 50.46).

Of course, where this doesn’t work is if bidder A bids £43 and bidder B bids £89 a year. In this case, bidder A gets 70 points, whereas bidder B gets ((89-43)/43)x100, which is more than 100% more expensive, and gets a score out of 70 of zero.

See? Simple, isn’t it? Sadly it wasn’t simple enough for WECA’s procurement droid who sent through a calculation where we had been awarded a negative overall score which was impossible according to their own published system for tender evaluation. One wonders what other mistakes have been made along the way that us mere operators aren’t party to.

The reason for the numbergibber
The more i’ve thought about the situation, the more i’ve concluded that it isn’t about “Sir Humphrey Knows Best” (as a friend of mine would say), but more to do with culpability. As with most things, the metrification of each operator’s responses has a reason. In this case, the reason is so that nobody employed by the authority can be blamed for making the wrong decision. The numbers dictate who is successful and who is not. This is why each contract specification has to be fixed and there is no window for nuance or even correcting the downright idiotic – every operator must only bid on what exactly WECA want to procure, and therefore nobody can be blamed or challenged for making the wrong decision over a contract award. This is what we have come to expect from an organisation as risk averse as Bristol City Council. Regrettably, this counterproductive practice has been firmly adopted by WECA and their ghastly procurement staff.

Sadly, the net result of this is that bus services are likely become more expensive to procure because everybody has to work around faulty service timetables created in an office by somebody who probably doesn’t even know where Marshfield or Ubley are. This is what decommercialised bus regulation will get you – more wasteful inefficiency rather than more bus services, doing what people want them to do. How is this beneficial to the travelling public?

There are operators who will thrive doing this sort of work, but they won’t improve passenger numbers because they will be working to the lowest cost possible, whilst also delivering a low quality service. At the end of the contract, services provided by such operators can be judged too expensive to provide (usually analysed by cost per passenger journey), and the service may well be lost. How is this beneficial to the travelling public?

Bus services are not simple mathematical formulae. Each journey is being made by somebody doing something different. Each route will generate journeys alongside the main passenger flows which could never be concieved by an office dwelling transport planner. A procurement process should not be a blunt, mechanised instrument, but should have room for innovation, efficiency and nuance, which would leave more funding available to benefit the travelling public.

Informed consideration and intelligent decision making is clearly not embraced at the West of England Combined Authority. The numbers man says so. I wonder how closely the contract conditions will be adhered to come September…?

The next post is a look at some of the details of the results of this tendering round, along with some details of changes which were tendered. Stay tuned if you’re in to that sort of thing.

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