9. Conclusions and Findings
The sixth annual national survey of building standards customers in Scotland has achieved a respectable overall response rate of 15% and has successfully captured the views of different types of customers served by all 32 local authorities. Higher volumes of customer email addresses were supplied by local authorities this year than in 2018, resulting in the highest number of responses to date since the first survey was run five years previously.
Across almost all headline measures, customer satisfaction with the building standards service has risen in Scotland over the past year, with the overall score standing at 7.4 out of 10, compared with 7.0 in 2018. The gap has narrowed over the past 12 months between applicants and agents, with agents generally less satisfied but showing a marked increase on last year.
Customer expectations of the service have not generally changed in recent years, with the most important aspects being speed of response, efficiency and clarity of communications, ease of access to friendly and knowledgeable staff, as well as consistency in the quality of service within and between local authorities.
Most customers are generally complimentary about the service, either experiencing no issues or the satisfactory resolution of any queries or problems arising over the course of an application. However, it seems clear from the feedback that customers’ emails, phone calls and voice messages are not always being answered in a reasonable timeframe, and that the length of time taken by local authorities to process building warrant applications (including cases that some agents consider to be ‘straightforward’) is often beyond what customers deem acceptable. This is a particular problem where delays can have a knock-on impact on applicants’ plans and/or wider development activity.
Some customers are concerned that the level of service provided by their local authority is not sufficiently customer-focused and they largely put this down to under-resourcing. There are also suggestions that some customers are afraid to voice their concerns for fear that this could be to the detriment of their application.
Customers also commented that staff should be more understanding of their needs and offer greater levels of guidance and support when required as they move through what can be a stressful process. Customers requested improved clarity and guidance on the process as a whole (and associated terminology) to promote a more supportive journey for them.
Disparities prevail between different local authorities and satisfaction levels are lowest among the largest Councils (see Appendix 1). These continuing disparities are of particular concern in light of Scottish Ministers re-appointing some local authorities as verifiers for shorter periods than others based on past performance and reported levels of customer service.
Finally, feedback on the e-building standards system suggests that the portal would benefit from ongoing review and enhancement to ensure it is simple and intuitive to use, with accompanying guidance for customers.
9.2 Forward considerations
These considerations are for the Scottish Government (Building Standards Division) to consider taking forward in conjunction with Local Authority Building Standards Scotland (LABSS) and Building Standards Managers (BSMs) across the 32 local authorities.
Additionally, the separate consortium reports (x7) and individual local authority reports (x32) will help to pinpoint where customer service performance is relatively strong or weak.
The results enable customer satisfaction performance to be measured against the previous year, as well as future years, in the interests of continuous improvement. Any proposed mechanisms for improving customer service would need to be considered in relation to local authority resources.
On the back of the 2019 findings, it would appear that customer satisfaction and associated measures are moving in the right direction of travel, but that ongoing work is required to embed improvements further and deeper. Specific considerations for improving the customer experience are similar to 2018 and continue to apply as guiding principles for improvement and embedding change.
1. Identify ways of reducing the time taken for processing building warrant applications and completion certificates.
2. Whilst it may not always be possible to keep customers regularly updated on the progress of their application, ensure that customer email and telephone queries are responded to within an acceptable period of time.
3. Manage customer expectations around response timescales as best as possible from the outset, including clearer explanations to customers as to why applications may need to take a particular length of time and the types of delays that may be experienced that are outside local authority control.
4. Where customer feedback points to concerns that a local authority service is not meeting customer expectations, continue to work with senior Council leaders to put forward the case for more and better resourcing.
5. Explore and identify best practices among those local authorities with higher overall satisfaction scores and consider what opportunities exist and challenges need to be overcome to embed these more widely across Scotland.
6. Ensure that where building standards staff members change (or are absent for any reason), contingency procedures are in place to pick up cases or that there is a handover so that delays are minimised.
7. Maintain local ownership for improving the customer experience through effective use of Continuous Improvement Plans (CIPs).
8. Continue to identify ways of working smarter and reducing any unnecessary bureaucracy.
9. The Scottish Government should continue to develop and improve the functionality of the eDev (eBS) portal to provide a more efficient and intuitive experience, as well as ensuring that local authorities are using the system to its full advantage. Suggested system and process enhancements include allowing the upload of multiple drawings at once and – ideally – enabling customers to log in and check on the progress of an application.
Binding these nine considerations together is the need for a customer-focused approach to be at the heart of all behaviour, and for this to be embedded through continuous improvement.
Some specific considerations relating to the delivery of any future national customer satisfaction survey for building standards are similar to 2018 and these continue to apply as guiding principles:
1. Local authorities should continue to capture, record and update customer email addresses to better enable electronic communications in the future, and to provide a larger potential sample size for future national surveys.
2. The e-building standards portal provides an additional opportunity to maximise the volume and accuracy of customer email addresses collected and held by local authorities. It can also standardise data capture to make national reporting easier, more efficient and more accessible.