9. Conclusions and Findings
The seventh 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 2019, and the survey was once again promoted via social media channels, resulting in the highest number of responses to date since the first survey was run six years previously.
Across several headline measures, customer satisfaction with the building standards service has risen slightly in Scotland over the past year, with the overall score standing at 7.5 out of 10, compared with 7.4 in 2019. The gap between direct applicants and agents has narrowed over the past two years, with agents’ satisfaction increasing and now being equal to that of applicants.
Over the years since the survey began, customer expectations of the service have not generally changed, 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 what they perceive as 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. This has been a recurring issue within customer feedback for several years now, and suggests that customer expectations could be managed more effectively.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can be clearly seen, with volumes of inspections and site visits down, and an increase in use of electronic communication and inspection. It is, as yet, unclear whether this is working to the benefit of customers, with some favouring this approach, and others preferring face-to-face resolution. Customers are broadly understanding that processes may take longer than normal with staff based at home, but some note that not all issues are resolved in an adequate timeframe.
A minority of customers are concerned that the level of service provided by their local authority verifier 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 authority verifiers and satisfaction levels are lowest among the largest local authority verifiers, although larger local authority verifiers’ satisfaction levels have increased since 2018 (see Appendix 1). It would therefore appear that Scottish Ministers’ decision (from 2017) to re-appoint some local authorities as verifiers for shorter periods than others based on past performance and reported levels of customer service is having the impact intended.
Finally, customer feedback on the e-building standards system suggests that the portal would benefit from continuing review and development to incorporate the latest technology available. Customers believe this will ensure it is simple and intuitive to use, particularly if accompanied by guidance for customers, and if portal traffic has increased due to Covid.
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 authority verifiers and are based on customer feedback and suggestions to this survey.
Additionally, the separate consortium reports (x7) and individual local authority verifier 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 verifier resources, which have been placed under additional strain in 2020 due to Covid-19.
On the back of the 2020 findings, it would appear that customer satisfaction and associated measures are moving in the right direction, but that ongoing work is required to embed improvements further and deeper. Specific considerations for improving the customer experience are broadly similar to 2019 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, particularly with staff adapting to new ways of working.
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 (i.e. those stated in local authorities’ customer charters).
3. Proactively manage customer expectations around response timescales from the outset. Clear explanations should be provided to customers as to why applications may need to take a particular length of time, including reasons for any envisaged delay to services.
4. Where customer feedback points to concerns that a local authority verifier service is not meeting customer expectations, use this evidence to make a business case to senior Council leaders for more and better resourcing.
5. Continue to explore and identify best practices among those local authority verifiers with higher overall satisfaction scores. Consider what opportunities exist and what challenges need to be overcome to share best practices and 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) and updating local customer charters.
8. Continue to identify ways of working smarter and to ensure processes set out in legislation can be enacted with optimum efficiency.
9. Customers note their experience could be improved if the functionality of the eDev (eBS) portal is developed to provide a more efficient and intuitive experience, as well as ensuring that local authority verifiers use the system to its full advantage. Customers’ 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 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 2019 and act as guiding principles, and also link into future considerations around the Performance Framework and the global coronavirus pandemic.
1. Local authority verifiers 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 authority verifiers. With development, it could also standardise data capture to make national reporting easier, more efficient, and more accessible.
3. The current methodology has successfully captured the views of thousands of building standards customers to provide accurate and robust data on customer satisfaction.
4. As evidenced from the 2020 survey findings – in which customers in the period of 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020 were surveyed – there is a significant lag between customer interaction and reporting, with many responses noting the impact of Covid-19, despite the UK impact only occurring from late March 2020. This suggests that some customers may have been contextualising their responses to the current climate and/or referring to more recent interactions rather than just those which took place in the timeframe specified by the research. This is arguably a natural human tendency and may also have been the case in previous years to an extent, albeit impossible to truly quantify. Whilst year-on-year tracking is still perfectly valid, there may be a case to consider a more dynamic approach to obtaining feedback with a faster turnaround from experience to response.
5. After seven years, a review is required to ensure it provides value and remains fit for purpose, and this could form part of the anticipated, wider review of the Performance Framework.