Reforming the way that England's second city manages its parks is not a job for the faint-hearted. Not only is Birmingham the most populous local authority in Britain with around a million residents, it also contains 4,000ha of parks and open spaces made up of more than 400 individual sites - more than any other European city, the council claims.
To add to the sheer scale is the division of parks work between three grounds maintenance bodies, whose ten-year contracts, worth £25m a year in all were recently concluded. Contractor Glendale covers the north of the city, Quadron much of the rest, with an in-house team responsible for "strategic parks" as well as the department's three nurseries.
"We knew we couldn't keep going with the old system," says head of parks Darren Share. "It wasted a lot of time and we wanted to make staff more productive."
Next month, the department will go live with an IT system that will manage all aspects of grounds maintenance, internal and external. The move predates the city's recent announcement of deep budget cuts, including the cutting of constituency parks manager posts from 10 to four (HW, 5 February). Share explains: "It's been in concept for several years, but we couldn't achieve budget cuts without the technology."
He adds: "We have reviewed the whole way we operate as a department. We have been quite traditional up until now and this has been a good way of looking at the key steps, including seeing how we might keep customers better informed. It's meant a cultural change in the department as well as a boost to efficiency."
A previous asset database, in place from the mid 1970s, would print out a job sheet for 13 periods of four weeks covering the year for each site. But other than that, all documentation was held on paper.
"It was a complete mess," says Chris Odowd, an officer from the city's landscape practice group involved in the project since the start. "It took months just to understand how the old system was put together and what the different naming conventions were before you could sort it into a system that made sense."
Share adds: "Everyone had a folder to refer to, whereas now it's all on one screen - you have it all in your pocket, which is handier on a mower."
Odowd points out the magnitude of the data capture exercise, a task that took nine months. "We had all the information on 20,000 sheets of paper. Everything had to be digitised onto one huge map, then every polygon (representing an area of green space) linked to that. The data capture was done externally, but it had to be checked in-house by local people who knew what was really there. Everything depends on the quality of the data."
On top of that, tasks numbering nearly a million in all then had to be associated with these individual areas. Within the council, the Service Birmingham team "took our IT requirements and made them happen", but the applications were developed externally by Northgate Information Solutions and Merlin Professional Services.
"We don't think anyone else is doing this," says Share. "But Northgate sees potential in providing a version of this system to other local authorities."
Specifying and testing the system was done in the department's training suite in King's Heath Park in the south of the city, where the team was then able to test both hardware and software in the realistic scenario of the park itself.
The resulting application has separate interfaces for park managers, external contract managers and park workers. Each accesses the information in a different way.
For managers, the "back office" consists of managerial information including complete list of the park's assets from nearly 200 categories ranging from lawns to benches, each of which can be depicted on maps along with the progress on completing work on them.
"It lets you know how much you have already spent, so you can decide whether you want to put more work in or take some out," explains Share.
Unusually, managers can also see lists of complaints and enquiries from the public that relate to each asset. "A big part of it is to allow the public to make enquiries via a single customer service point using a single phone number," says Odowd. "The person who takes the enquiry can then associate it with an asset and it will come up on managers' personal digital assistants (PDAs)."
Service Birmingham project manager Alex Glass says: "it's been an opportunity to look at our business processes, including how we can offer a better customer service."
For contractors, each will receive an electronic file of what work they have to carry out at what point in the year, which they then schedule "as they see fit" via a scheduling application, says Odowd. "It will be a big cultural change for them too, so we have built in functions to help them," he adds.
Contractors will use a separate web-based management tool called POPI (Parks Operations & Performance Information), which the council will not be able to access. This includes human resources management tools such as records of hand-arm vibrations to which staff have been exposed.
Each contractor has requested "bolt-ons", says Share. "They each want certain things but we don't want three different systems, so it's been a case of design by committee. But we now have a package with which everyone is happy."
Conceptual change in relationship
The system's launch will mark a conceptual change in the relationship between the department and its contractors. Previously, a "default payment" system meant that contractors were paid unless particular tasks were recorded as not done, in which case they were "defaulted out", Share explains.
Now, with "positive confirmation of work", workers tick off tasks on a hand-held PDA or even mobile phone as they are completed - or record an explanation as to why not. This then updates the centrally-held data, allowing managers to see it immediately.
"For us it was always a problem to know what work had been done and what hadn't," says Odowd. The system was originally conceived with PDAs in mind, but gangs will now have the choice of these or touch-screen mobile phones, both of which include cameras.
"There was very little modification required to port it from a PDA to a phone," says Share. "In both cases, it shows you on the map where the work is that the worker should be doing. By transmitting your co- ordinates, it also verifies that you were there - though it's not a 'tracker'." Glass sees the tools becoming more widespread in future. "PDAs shouldn't cost £200 in three years' time," he says.
"The interface uses symbols rather than a lot of text," says Odowd. "There may be staff who can't read and write or are foreign labour. It also lets you work offline. You might be under trees and not have reception, but it saves on the cost of the 3G (telephony)."
Supervisors are then sent a randomised list of a quarter of the completed jobs for them to check. Two days later, a similar list is forwarded to the local authority's parks department. "We then check the checkers," says Share.
Odowd adds: "It then either goes through for payment or we can fine them if it's a fraudulent claim. We have to show the public that their money's not being wasted, but it makes the contractors more efficient - it's a saving for them too."
It will also mean changes for the department's own managers, who will shortly be issued with wireless-connected tablet PCs. "You don't have to be based in one place," explains Odowd. "You can be nearer the parks, in one of four area hubs, rather than driving into central Birmingham."
Glass concludes: "The people changes are harder than the IT changes. But everyone has had a chance to put it through its paces and now they're champing at the bit to get using it for real."
Logging the trees - and the animals
Once the basic grounds maintenance package is up and running, the system can be expanded in a number of exciting directions, as Darren Share and Chris Odowd explain.
- Tree management "We are developing a system for our arboricultural contractors, in time for our next award in summer," says Share.
- Playground equipment Individual items can be barcoded and included as assets on the system. "You can then establish how long it will be before you need to replace it, which helps you budget for the future," says Odowd.
- Biodiversity By late summer, the system will allow wildlife sightings to be logged. "If you see a water vole, you can then suspend tasks such as strimming," says Share.
- Litter monitoring "We can pinpoint where the hot spots are on the map and concentrate more effort there or pass the information on to the environmental team," says Odowd.
- Allotments. "It allows you to show graphically not only which plots we have but which ones will be vacant next year," adds Odowd. "The possibilities are amazing."