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Time & motion
Business Travel World – May 2007

The inspectors who check standards all over the country travel a great deal. Mark Smulian uncovers the different agencies' methods for meeting those needs

The country is crawling with inspectors. At any one time hundreds are travelling to check on the performance and financial standing of public bodies - everything from schools to street cleansing and from hospitals to housing repairs has its inspectors.

This work generates a substantial demand for hotels and travel, usually by rail. Inspectors might spend several days in the field studying the skill with which a council empties dustbins, or how well a hospital cares for patients, and their work can take them to large cities or remote rural areas.

As guardians of public money, most inspectorates try to minimise travel and look for good deals on their spending.

Inspectorates exist to uphold good financial management and performance standards, and the organisations they visit can face detailed interrogations about their spending.

This perhaps makes it curious that among a sample of inspectorates, take-up of the Office of Government Commerce Buying Solutions framework contract for travel remains patchy.

Inspectorates, after all, should be convinced by the OGC's arguments for efficiency through aggregated spending if anyone is.

One absentee from the OGC client list is the Audit Commission, although it does intend to put its travel spend with companies in the framework when its present contracts end.

It is a large inspectorate, which says it ensures that "public money is spent economically, efficiently, and effectively in local government, housing, health, criminal justice and fire and rescue services".

There are some 2,500 staff involved in audit and inspection based in nearly 300 locations across England.

The Commission spends 909,624 a year on rail travel, booked through Trainline on an online self-service basis, and just 35,063 on air. Hire cars cost it 74,914. Around 8m goes on company cars, mileage allowances for staff who use their own vehicles and fuel.

It spends a further 1.13m on 12,000 hotel-night stays a year for staff, booked through online self-service via Expotel.

The Improvement & Development Agency is a body that follows up inspections in local government, advising on how to turn around services that have received unfavourable inspection reports. It also advises England's 380 or so councils generally on improving their services.

This work generates some 3,000 room nights booked each year, accompanied by almost as many rail journeys. Very little use is made of air.

Facilities manager Bob Allen says: "Our advisory teams are out all the time and out of 300 staff anything up to two-thirds will be out working with local authorities.

"We use a lot of rail, and many staff will need hotels as they can stay several days or longer with some councils."

The Agency handles its own bookings and also provides this service for a number of other local government bodies. It does not use the OGC framework.

"It was a decision of our former manager not to, and the issue has simply not arisen since," Allen says. "I have not had the OGC call on me to use their services."

The agency's staff use Uniglobe for rail booking as it allows us to print off rail tickets, "which means people are not waiting around for couriers", Allen says. Staff are expected to give three days' notice where possible of their need to travel and Allen's team looks online for the best deal.

They are not dedicated travel specialists but do these bookings alongside other facilities management work.

Even so, they have accumulated a fair degree of experience in travel bookings, which must help them when the rail fare system becomes exasperating.

"The rail pricing system is terrible and should be reformed," Allen says. "There is no wonder people complain about it - it's awful and you do not get led easily through it."

He cites "incoherent and baffling" examples, such as the possibility that two single tickets can prove cheaper than a return.

"If they could have a straightforward system it would be better, because there is too much unnecessary choice," he says.

"We can have people who need to change arrangements at short notice and find they have to pay again to use a different operator's trains."

The agency's hotel bookings are handled by Corporate Team, and staff can book rooms themselves by logging on to its system.

A 'bill back' system constrains their spending, so it would become rapidly apparent to management if someone had stayed at an unjustifiably expensive hotel. "If they have used a minibar or booked films or something, that will show up and can be settled separately, but it means our staff do not have to fiddle around to find cash when they are out working," Allen says.

The Healthcare Commission is the body that assesses the medical and care performance of both National Health Service and independent providers in England. Its inspectors normally work in teams of between one and four and can visit locations for between a day and a week depending on the issue concerned.

The Commission joins with the Department of Health for hotel bookings, which uses Expotel as part of the OGC framework.

But it handles its own rail bookings through Harry Weeks' Travelpack online service, which is not part of the OGC set-up.

Commission finance manager Robert Khaw says: "Weeks are saving us around 250,000 a year. We spent 900,000 last year and expect that to be 660,000 this financial year."

Commission staff members do not book travel directly, and this is normally handled by administrative staff who are not travel specialists.

Khaw says: "The Weeks website is easy to use and people can do the bookings and print off tickets. It is clear whether, for example, two singles is a better choice than a return."

One of the best-known inspectorates is Ofsted, more formally the Office for Standards in Education.

Its most recent annual report records 2,710 inspectors going to schools, colleges, independent schools, local authorities and young offender institutions.

It uses Travelocity for accommodation bookings and Carlson Wagonlit for travel - largely rail - and in both cases manages these centrally.

Both are part of the OGC framework and were chosen "following standard procurement practice to secure value for money", a spokeswoman says.

"Since 2004 it has been Ofsted's policy to consider the use of frameworks available through the OGC or other government departments and to make use of these where they will deliver better value for money than running its own tender exercises.

"The arrangements currently in place for travel and accommodation replaced earlier contracts which had time expired."

Ofsted's policy is to limit travel as far as possible consistent with the quality of its inspections.

A school inspection would typically take two days with the number of inspectors varying with the size of school.

Since 2005 inspections have been regionalised and inspectors travel shorter distance than before.

Ofsted also inspects childminders and daycare providers, but that is usually done by locally based inspectors in each area.

Jim Parkinson, head of travel and procurement cards at OGCbuying.solutions, says: "Our new travel frameworks provide a range of business travel solutions that are capable of satisfying a wide range of public sector travel needs, ranging from customers who travel on a regular basis and those who only travel occasionally." Has this message been imperfectly heard even in those parts of the public sector most concerned with efficiency?



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