Spotlight on Building Standards - latest customer service results
By Louise Shearer (6 July 2021)
Every quarter I review the directorate performance reports for content for my ‘at a glance’ posters and, on this occasion, I noticed an interesting statistic on our Building Standard Service’s recent customer service performance, reported in the latest Scottish Government’s National Customer Satisfaction Survey.
Having led the development of the council’s new Customer First Strategy, I got in touch with Team Leader Aaron Kerr to ask him a bit more about the survey and how they achieved their highest score yet.
First of all Aaron, can I ask how you’ve been able to continue delivering your service during the pandemic?
Generally, the Planning Service as a whole has been working towards using a paperless system for a long time now, so we were able to do the majority of our job electronically even before the pandemic hit.
Going paperless has also been made possible thanks to agents and architects making use of our online portal – statistically, almost every single building warrant application we now receive comes through that portal.
Where it might have been a little difficult is in relation to the other part of the job: doing site inspections. This wasn’t initially an issue because at the beginning of the lockdown everything was shut down. But when the industry started to slowly open up and people were able to do certain work outside, we had to think about how we could do this part of our job differently to help re-enable the industry. This meant making use of technology and starting to do virtual site inspections.
We also ran an online developers’ workshop (for agents, architects, builders etc) specifically on this, walking developers through how this new approach would work. We quickly recognised that there would be advantages to using remote inspections beyond the pandemic – we could make savings in terms of time and reducing our carbon footprint.
The key thing with COVID is that we’ve been forced into certain ways of working and I think that now it’s about making the most of those opportunities and continuing to improve the service we deliver.
How have customers responded during the pandemic?
Most people have been understanding as everyone has been affected by the challenges that the pandemic has brought. I think the way we handled the situation has been quite evident in the survey responses – we’ve scored very highly on the communication side of things.
What kind of communication have you been doing?
In the early days of the pandemic, we had to actively identify all the jobs that were currently out on site and make people aware of their need to notify us. We sent COVID letters out to all our customers to remind them of that requirement.
As well as running that developers’ virtual workshop I mentioned, we set up a dedicated part of the website for customers and we’ve continued to offer a duty officer meeting through email or by phone, as it couldn’t be done face to face.
What are the key performance outcomes (KPOs) that you’re measured against, which were reported on in the survey?
The current KPO process started in 2012 and applies to all the building standards verifiers in Scotland. It’s designed to improve the quality, compliance, consistency and predictability of the verification process using seven KPOs. These are all reported back to the Scottish Government every quarter.
The first two fall within the heading of ‘professional expertise and technical processes’. This is all about minimising the time it takes for customers to get a building warrant and ensuring we maintain the appropriate level of compliance checks on site.
The next two come under the broad heading of ‘quality customer experience’. We have to publish a Building Standards Customer Charter, which is available online, but we also have to understand and respond to the customer experience through surveys.
The last three KPOs come under the heading of ‘operational and financial efficiency’, and this includes things like promoting the digital aspects of our service and how we go about investing in new technology to make that work.
Two of the seven come under quality customer experience and I noticed this is about aiming to ensure that verifiers adhere to the commitments in the charter you mention and meet/exceed customer expectations. I wondered how your charter compares to the Customer First Charter?
There are a lot of parallels between the two. The council charter really puts an emphasis on customers being at the heart of what we’re trying to do. It sets out the expectations that customers can have and equally what we can expect of them. The main difference between the two is that the Building Standards Customer Charter sets out a lot of the performance expectations.
Your overall score is an improvement on last year – are there any particular changes you’ve made that has contributed towards this or do you think it’s been about the fact that there’s been continuity of service despite the pandemic?
This latest result is focused on the last year from April 2020 and that’s a key point – the customer survey covered the whole period we were in the pandemic and therefore the results were based on people’s experience of the service they received during that time. That adds another dimension when you actually look at the results because at a time where you might expect there to be difficulties we’ve scored impressively high.
When you compare the results from previous years to this one, it’s difficult to identify one particular area that we’ve improved on because actually we’ve statistically improved on almost every area in the survey. If I was to identify one, it would be in relation to the turnaround time of applications – for us we’ve seen the timescale reduce and that is partly down to the team being able to respond to and issue reports to applications that come in, and also hitting the targets that government set us throughout the year, which ties back to KPO 1 and 2.
The survey has identified a notable improvement in relation to the quality of service and advice given, which really ties in to our ability to communicate, and demonstrates the hard work my team has done in getting all those things in place.
I noticed that the national target is 7.5 and I just wondered if you’re benchmarked against other local authorities?
We are part of the Highlands and Islands Consortium with Orkney and the Western Isles and Highland, so the four of us get a Highlands and Islands result. We’re not benchmarked against each other but, as a consortium, it’s been quite encouraging that we’ve improved on the previous year as well. Shetland has achieved some of the highest returns within our consortium.
What do you see as a couple of the highpoints from the survey?
The most important thing is the overall result of 8.2 – that is a marked improvement, and not just on last year, as I don’t think we’ve ever had that high a score before. It’s thanks to the whole team showing resilience in dealing with a crisis situation during lockdown and still maintaining a high level of service delivery, while looking after families during these difficult times. When you set it in that context, it’s quite a phenomenal piece of work that the team have managed to do. I’m very proud of them.
(Survey report, page 9)
I think it’s also about communication, which I said was one of the biggest improvements in the survey. In an area where we could have scored the worst – having been disbanded and working separately - we’ve actually scored the highest.
Are there any areas for improvement?
I think we need to come out of this better than when we went into it. There’s a lot of things that COVID has impressed upon us, for example the remote virtual inspection (RVI) implementation. There will be a lot of work required to get that rolled out and we’ll also look to support our customers to help them embrace this new development.
We also need to keep on doing the good job we’re doing and maintain our positive results. This links in with updating some of our policies and procedures to make sure we deliver a consistent service as we bring in these new processes.
Finally, while we’ve achieved all our customer targets in terms of KPOs, a figure that’s not very evident in those is the average time to get a building warrant. I’d like to try to reduce the time this takes by supporting the users of our service in responding to any reports that we send out, and this could include things like embedding reminders in our system to follow these up and check in with our customers to see if there’s anything we can do to help.