By Donna Gardiner
Local authority planning departments are more often associated with bureaucracy than with delivering good quality customer service.
However, as the current reform of the planning system in Scotland puts the need to develop a modern, efficient service in the spotlight, thoughts have turned to how planning authorities can focus on the human side of delivering a good quality planning service.
Last month (August 2018), the Scottish Government published a report on customer service in the planning system. It examined different approaches to customer service across a range of private and public sector organisations in Scotland, with a view to identifying the lessons from these that could be applied to the planning system. Although focused on Scotland, the lessons are transferable elsewhere.
A number of challenges
The research found that while planning authorities in Scotland viewed high quality customer service as highly important, they faced a number of challenges to delivering this in practice.
Limited staff and financial resources are a key constraint affecting planning authorities’ ability to deliver high quality customer service. For example, customer expectations of the frequency and responsiveness of communication are often higher than what can reasonably be delivered.
There are also issues of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland. This is due in part to different interpretations of specific legislation, as well as different levels of investment in, and commitment to, customer service within individual planning authorities.
The risk of individuals confounding ‘customer service’ and ‘outcomes’ – where the planning decision reached affects the individual’s perception of the quality of service they have received – is another key challenge when measuring the customer experience.
Each year, planning authorities in Scotland must prepare an annual Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report, which details their performance over the previous year.
At present, the PPF has no specific measure of customer service delivery. Instead, planning authorities must submit a ‘narrative commentary’ of their customer service performance, along with relevant case studies that demonstrate their actions.
This means that individual planning authorities decide how best to gather information about their own customer service performance. Some of the key methods used include:
- Customer charters – which communicate customer service commitments to customers and employees
- Customer satisfaction surveys – mainly online, however, some were still postal
- Forums – the use of customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers
- Complaint handling procedures – published details of organisational systems, protocols and SLAs for registering and responding to complaints
- Customer service standard accreditation – g. Customer Service Excellence (CSE), Investors in People (IiP), ISO9001, Customer Satisfaction Measurement Tool (CSMT) etc.
So what can be done? The benefits of e-planning
The report identified a number of ways in which customer service within the planning system could be improved.
First was the need to achieve a greater consistency of processes, enforcement and quality of service across Scotland. Clearer national guidance on implementing legislation would go some way to achieve this. Establishing a national survey of customer service in the planning system is also a priority. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which currently incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience.
Planning authorities also overwhelmingly believed that e-planning had improved customer service. The benefits included:
- more efficient information flows
- better prioritisation of work
- reduced printing costs
- greater transparency
- easier access to information by the public
What is clear is that the move to e-planning is bringing a ‘culture change’. By speeding up the planning process and making more efficient use of resources, e-planning frees up both time and money to be spent elsewhere in the planning process. As one planning authority notes:
“It’s about how you work with the customer to bring them on the e-planning journey with you and change their mindset. In the long run the customer benefits because it speeds up the service.”
As technology and customer expectations evolve it will be important that e-planning solutions reflect this in the future.
Good quality customer service helps to make the planning system easier to understand and processes more accessible and usable. This in turn opens up the system to those who might otherwise feel that it is too complex or time consuming to participate. This may be of particular importance when encouraging young people to become involved in consultations.
Improving customer service within the planning system is not something that is just ‘nice to have’. Planning has changed significantly over the years – and with change comes the need for reliable, cost-effective processes to drive end-to-end efficiency.
For 30 years, Idox has been supporting the work of local government planning departments. iApply, a planning application submission portal launched by the Idox Group in 2015, offers local authorities the opportunity to benefit from an out-of-the-box end-to-end digital solution that makes submitting planning, building and licence applications simple for customers and cost effective for the authority.