Customer service and the planning system: a research study

The research follows on the back of the 2017 People, Places and Planning consultation and highlights examples of good practice and forward considerations for strengthening customer service within the planning system.

1 Executive Summary

About this research

In April 2018, The Scottish Government commissioned Pye Tait Consulting to explore how customer service is measured by a range of public and private sector organisations. The purpose was to highlight examples of good practice and forward considerations for strengthening customer service within the planning system. The research follows on the back of the 2017 People, Places and Planning Consultation. This envisioned a planning system in Scotland which is open for business, internationally respected and improves people's lives by creating better places and supporting delivery of good quality homes.

The research involved a desk-based review of customer service approaches operated by 25 organisations spanning local authority planning services, other local authority services, other public and private sector organisations, as well as a sample of firms that have won awards for customer service or achieved a recognised standard of excellence. In addition, 14 telephone interviews were completed, comprising seven planning authorities in Scotland, and seven stakeholders that work in relation to the Scottish planning system.

Methods and exemplars of customer service

The Planning Performance Framework ( PPF) [1] in Scotland does not currently incorporate specific tangible measures relating to customer service delivery. Instead these are sought through a narrative commentary and via written case studies from planning authorities. A review of PPF reports reveals that some include evidence of customer feedback which is collected by various means including hard copy questionnaires, continuous online surveys and ad hoc focus groups.

Customer charters are used by several sampled organisations to communicate customer service commitments and ambitions, for the benefit of customers and employees. Building Standards services in Scotland adhere to a National Building Standards Customer Charter, which 'provides information about the minimum standards of service that all local authority verifiers should meet'. This tends to be supplemented by local customer charters authored by building standards services.

Most of the 25 sampled organisations run some form of customer satisfaction survey which are mainly hosted online but in some cases conducted by telephone. Other innovative approaches, especially among private sector companies, include short email or SMS surveys that ask customers to rate the individual they spoke to. Such sophisticated systems tend to work well for call centre services where staff may be incentivised in some way for high customer satisfaction scores.

Scottish planning authorities that carry out customer surveys tend to favour an online platform such as Survey Monkey, which they run and analyse themselves. Key issues include lack of consistency across Scotland in how, and how often, these are carried out; low response rates; and an apparent tendency for customers to conflate outcomes and service levels. Another perceived issue is survey fatigue, caused by customers receiving numerous requests from a range of organisations.

Several Scottish planning authorities, as well as other sampled public-sector organisations, host customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers, which helps to provide rich qualitative feedback. Most organisations examined for the research also publish details of their complaint-handling processes which invariably involve multiple internal stages of acknowledgement, investigation and attempted resolution via a response letter (with specific timescales for each stage) before referral to the relevant Ombudsman if the customer remains dissatisfied.

A range of different customer service standards operate across the public and private sector, with a common standard across Scottish local authorities being Customer Service Excellence ( CSE). Planning authorities interviewed for the research gave mixed views as to the perceived value of such standards and accreditations in general. One mentioned that they are working towards CSE and feel this will give a sense of credibility to their customer service approaches. Others mentioned having limited awareness of such standards, with two expressing some cynicism that they can involve jumping through a lot of hoops.

Quality of customer service in the planning system

Planning authorities in Scotland place strong importance on delivering high quality customer service but feel constrained by limited staff and financial resources. Stakeholders generally echo these sentiments and there are clear issues in terms of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland. This partly comes down to differences in how specific aspects of legislation are interpreted. It can also manifest in how customers are dealt with by individual staff, the commitment and investment of a particular planning service to customer service standards (such as Customer Service Excellence) and how authorities seek customer opinions and measure/track their performance.

Digital technologies offer opportunities as well as threats to good customer service. E-planning appears to be very well received among local authorities and stakeholders, notably for supporting a more transparent and flexible service. However, the growth of digital communication channels means that many organisations are choosing to rely more and more on remote customer engagement, for example though FAQs and live chat sessions. These are becoming commonplace across the public and private sectors but care is needed to ensure customers with perhaps quite complex and bespoke queries know where to go for information, how their queries will be dealt with and in what timescale.

Improving customer service in the planning system

Feedback suggests that the Scottish Government could do more to increase the emphasis placed on customer service within the planning performance framework. At present, the planning performance framework lacks clear, tangible and nationally consistent measures to track customer service. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience. This is primarily measured through customer ratings sought through an annual customer satisfaction survey. The fact this survey is run independently at a national level, but with local reporting, helps to enable performance to be consistently measured and benchmarked across Scotland, with consortium groups helping to identify lessons that can be learned.

There is general agreement among planning authorities and stakeholders that more could be done to share best practice, for example via forums and capacity building events. Several planning authorities interviewed for the research feel that customer perceptions would be enhanced through better awareness and understanding of the positive benefits that result from the planning system.

Customer satisfaction with planning is complicated by the fact the outcome of a planning application can influence how customers typically perceive the service. The nature of planning means that in some cases customers will 'engage' with the system as objectors and feel they have not been listened to where the decision does not go in their favour. This may not necessarily be the case and means that planning authorities need to work harder to proactively engage a broad cross-section of customers, including local communities in a positive way and as early as possible during the planning process.


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