9. Conclusions and Findings
The fifth annual national survey of building standards customers in Scotland has achieved a respectable overall response rate of 17% (identical to 2016 and 2017) and has successfully captured the views of different types of customers served by all 32 local authorities in Scotland. Higher volumes of customer email addresses were supplied by local authorities this year than in 2017, resulting in the highest number of responses to date since the first survey was run five years previously.
The picture in 2018 reveals that while the majority of customers are general satisfied with the building standards service, 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. Scottish Ministers will review the further extension of verification status for the local authorities currently with one-year appointments early in 2019.
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 7.0 out of 10, compared with 6.7 in 2017. The gap has continued to widen over the past 12 months between applicants and agents, with agents the less satisfied of the two main groups.
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, or sometimes not at all, 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.
Many customers are increasingly concerned that the level of service provided by certain local authorities 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.
Finally, feedback on the new e-building standards system suggests that the portal would benefit from continual review and enhancement to ensure it operates smoothly and intuitively. Customers expect that a more efficient front-end electronic system should be met with more efficient processing times, which does not always appear to be the case.
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.
Specific considerations for improving the customer experience are similar to, if not a repeat of, 2017:
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 in all cases and 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 track an application's progress.
Specific considerations relating to the delivery of future national customer satisfaction surveys for building standards:
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 introduction of e-building standards provides an additional opportunity to maximise the volume and accuracy of email addresses collected and held by local authorities. It can also standardise data capture to make national reporting easier and more accessible.
3. Local authorities should continue to ensure that the most recent consent status provided by each customer (i.e. for opting out of the national survey) is treated as that customer's current preference and that this is kept up-to-date using a suitable local system.
4. Consideration should continue to be given to more efficient ways of logging customer preferences relating to the national survey, for example electronic form scanning and automatic updating of customer contact preferences.