Part 5: The Future of the Yellow School Bus
With this series we’ve been introducing a number of emerging trends that DSG believes will dominate the future of our profession. It is important to note that all of these trends will apply, regardless of who owns and operates the school bus. One of these overarching themes is constant connection through technology. Another is demand-response based adaptive routing. Constant connection and two-way flows of data and information will be the lifeblood of both contracted and self-operated transportation systems. The constantly connected contractor must become part of the overall solution. At DSG we believe there simply will be no way to successfully operate a contracted pupil transportation service at arms-length in this new world. Enter the world of the connected and integrated school transportation contractor.
The changing service expectations we have introduced no longer permit a distant relationship. Rather, we believe it will soon be essential that the school bus contractor operate as an integrated extension of the district in practice, not only in name. The contractor’s management and supervisory staff must become part of the interconnected whole. Alternatively, the contractor’s staff must be under in-the-moment control of district decision makers. Either way, this can only be accomplished with modifications to the underlying terms and conditions of the contract itself. New procurement methodologies will become necessary for either approach to take root.
Changing service models will still have one foundational factor that can never change. From the school district’s perspective, it is important to remember that while it will always be feasible to outsource service delivery, the district can never outsource accountability. More ongoing connection with the contractor may require more control by the district. This will be facilitated by changes to the contract to include fixed rates of compensation but more flexibility in the use of the asset to be meet in the moment demands. The new contract must also include mechanisms to ensure these flexible day-to-day operations have measurable outcomes for the contractor’s performance. This in turn requires that we rethink how we measure and ensure high levels of performance by providing the contractor with appropriate incentives. All of this must encourage a one-team philosophy, with integrated operations being the demonstration of success. As the customer, the school district must be the agent of change to make this happen. Do this or go find another customer must become the mantra.
All of this speaks to the emergence of a new hybrid outsourcing model in which the distinctions between contractor and school district are softened, and a cooperative spirit of combined operations becomes the new paradigm. In some instances, this may seem difficult or impossible to achieve. In others it may no longer make sense to think of outsourcing as an all or nothing proposition. At DSG we believe it may begin to make sense to start thinking about more targeted approaches to outsourcing by contracting for parts of the requirement instead of the whole thing.
Several possibilities exist, and the market will respond to school districts looking for a new way. Given the magnitude of the changes facing the profession, perhaps one option is to hire contracted expertise instead of fully integrated bus operations. This can include professional transition services or full-time management personnel. If the transition to a clean energy bus fleet seems daunting, perhaps consider leasing opportunities for the fleet and/or the charging infrastructure, coupled perhaps with outsourced maintenance until district staff can be trained to take over. If sharing control of the interconnected service requirement seems overwhelming, keep the management and supervisory responsibility and consider contracting only for the assets and the operators. None of these options may prove feasible, desirable, or necessary. The point to take away is that neither are any of them are outside the realm of possibility, and the need to plan and think about alternative forms of adaptive contracting must be a part of the future for a contracted operation. The vendors will not change unless the customer demands it.
The bottom line from our perspective is that we are entering an age when the contracted school district operation must begin to consider whether to do contracting differently or to consider providing the future service themselves. This series has been encouraging all of us to recognize that we have to, we must, adapt. The future is upon us and we have no choice. The contractor community will follow. They also have no choice. The question we believe it is time to ask yourself is, can I make the transition better, faster, and cheaper myself or will a change to our contracting methodology provide the necessary impetus to force the vendors to change? Remember, you will own the accountability, so also own the decision to outsource and, if you do, do it right.
Stay tuned for more and join the conversation. Next time, in our final installment: What will the future pupil transportation professional need to be successful?