COLLECTION: Ten Tools for a Competitive Collection World

A wave of privatization is moving through the solid waste industry. This time, communities have chosen to surf this wave, turning their solid waste collection operations over to private contractors. But municipalities that apply best business practices, efficiency and optimization improvements, and state-of-the-art technology, also are finding they, too, can obtain private sector-type savings without losing public control.

In addition to adopting a competitive stance, here are 10 tools that can improve public collections systems operations.

1. Get Employees to 'Think Private.' Key to making public agencies competitive is to develop an entrepreneurial spirit that makes staff feel as if they are working for their own business. Thinking and acting like a private industry as opposed to "putting in eight and hitting the gate" is easier said than done. However, old, inefficient attitudes must be overcome.

2. Open Communication Channels. The best ideas to improve efficiency often come from front-line workers. Thus, ideas flowing freely up and down your organization's ladder will yield trust and teamwork.

3. Get a True Handle on Costs. To be competitive, develop realistic, zero-based budgets, while managing activities based on these budgets. Thinking private means handling costs and treating costs as if they were your own. Employee teams should be encouraged to negotiate fixed-price or lump-sum agreements on back-office expenditures that relate to internal municipal services, such as fleet management and management information systems.

4. Train Managers to Manage Performance. Develop an in-house executive training program. Managers who are promoted to the top may not have the management and leadership skills necessary to move an organization forward. Thus, work with your human resources department to develop courses in finance, public speaking and organizational effectiveness. Or, bring in outside trainers from local colleges or consulting firms. This training will teach essential management tools and bring long-term benefits.

5. Apply Cutting-Edge Technology. Being competitive in solid waste management often means stretching labor and equipment dollars without reducing service. Fortunately, this industry has developed reliable and cost-effective solutions. For example, automated collection reduces labor costs, minimizes on-the-job injuries and rising insurance claims, maintains cleaner streets and improves customer service. Additionally, new software programs can help you create complete, quicker, easier and heuristic routing. This enables managers to balance collection routes, saving time and money.

6. Pay for Performance Strategies. Traditionally, public sector compensation programs reward employees with an annual wage increase based on job classification and longevity - not on how well workers perform or how knowledgeable they are. Thus, excellent and mediocre performers working side by side receive the same pay adjustments, regardless of their contribution. Initially, public officials opposed pay and incentive programs, questioning why public employees should be paid more for just doing their jobs. However, communities increasingly are restructuring compensation programs, creating broader pay bands and paying incentives for additional employee education. Public sector agencies also are beginning to pilot employee gain-sharing programs as an alternative to the traditional civil service pay system.

7. Look for Revenue Enhancing Opportunities. To keep user rates low, many communities are looking for ways to provide new services that will generate additional revenue. For example, roll-off service produces revenue for waste collection programs and often serves as a "cash cow" for other services that provide lower revenue margins. Recently, public agencies have entered this marketplace as a way to shore-up their revenue base and provide extra income for programs that must be offered to all homeowners and businesses because of unfunded state and federal mandates. Other communities have expanded their service areas beyond municipal boundaries to supplement agency revenues and spread labor and equipment costs.

8. Control Overtime and Implement Flexible Work Schedules. Typically with twice-a-week collection, there is more trash to collect during the first pickup day than the second. Many public systems pay overtime if staff members work more than eight hours per day, regardless of their total hours per week. However, borrowing from private sector techniques, some public agencies now are paying overtime only if workers first meet 40 hours per week. Municipalities also can supplement their workforce with temporary or seasonal workers, especially during peak collection periods.

9. Celebrate Successes. Don't forget to celebrate successes with innovative rewards and celebrations. At times, making needed improvements means workers sacrifice their personal time, so make sure your staff understands that these triumphs often result in long-term efficiency.

10. Educate Public Officials and the Public. Finally, keep public decision-makers and the general public in the loop about new programs. Educate your bosses about good work, and highlight testimonials of your service. Don't keep the program or its success a secret.