It’s all about the people

I’m coming out of a long tunnel called “the planning benchmark”. I now have more facts on planning departments than any other human in the history of the universe, and I’m beginning to think of how I can use these facts as a force for good.

One part of the benchmark was customer feedback via freepost. Taking the feedback as a whole, there are some really clear messages that are really easy to respond to. One, though, is making me think a bit more. One question we asked applicants was something along the lines of “Were you helped to make your development happen ?” and this prompted lots of applicants to write comments in addition to giving marks. And what they said was “it depends on the officer assigned to you“.

We asked the question wanting feedback on the performance of the planning department, but punters wanted to feedback on the individual. Not just negative – some applicants wanted to heap praise on some individuals for their can-do approach and general friendliness. I suppose it shouldn’t be a big shock. We might pretend to be a bunch of professionals, all operating the same system in an impartial and dispassionate way. But we suspect that validator ‘A’ is really really strict when compared to validator ‘B’, and that officer ‘C’ invents a few new ‘i’s to be dotted just for fun, whereas officer ‘D’ does the minimum possible.

The feedback from agents is suggesting to me that there is real merit in collecting feedback that is tied to named people. There are some potential issues with this, but I don’t think there is anything here that can’t be overcome:

  • Applications go through many hands, and there is churn the team:  This is not the applicants problem.  As an officer, it can feel a bit unfair to be handed an old, cold case but we need people to own the problem and establish a constructive relationship.
  • It could encourage officers to take the easy way out: It would be dreadful for customer feedback to result in officers being afraid to give applicants the answer “no” or “unless“. But really, feedback from customers is just another perspective and (at times) will need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Good managers will use the feedback in a broader context – but will also be able to use it as evidence if complaints are clear and consistent.
  • Applicants are not the only “customer” to the service: I keep being told this. This just doesn’t matter. Yes, of course we should aim for the highest standards with all our stakeholders – let’s just start by trying to collect data from the most obvious source and see how it goes. This is unashamedly a transaction thing – evaluation of outcomes is for another day.
  • It’s unfair to manage people on the basis of a tiny amount of customer feedback: This is true. We have to (all together) find a way of driving up participation until it becomes representative. Otherwise the law of small numbers will render the information collected via feedback useless.

This feels like a natural corollary to the work we’re doing on the agents pilot. Let transparency and the facts be our guide. The 2012 benchmark may feel like a long way away, but I’m starting to think about the improvements I’ll put before the steering group. And if you are the officer who “is impossible to get hold of and never returns calls” you have about 6 months to improve the way you do things.

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One thought on “It’s all about the people

  1. No problem with the conclusion that it’s all about the people, but wasn’t this always going to be the case? And surely it applies to all those working in the planning application processing business i.e. applicants and officers and others?.

    One key fact (amongst the many) from the Benchmarking work is that some applications take more LA resources (ie cost more) to decide than others. Whilst factors such as size and complexity of the proposal are key determinants of costs, so is the quality of what is submitted. This is not just down to the scheme itself, but also to the way it was prepared. So the theory is that an application that has been developed with effective community involvement and pre application discussions and has taken into account relevant planning policy will cost less to decide and take less time. My argument would be that this is all down to people.

    On the ‘applicants are the only customer (that matters) ’ point, whilst there is a danger of getting distracted by terms such as customers and stakeholders, I can’t agree that the only transactional relationship is with applicants. Granted the fees applicants pay make a direct contribution to costs, but this still leaves around 50% (Ref Where does all the money go II) to be picked up by the taxpayer. I would say that transactional relationships between applicants and residents and residents and the planners can’t been downgraded to a simple evaluation of outcomes.

    No issues with feedback tied to real people, but we need to make proper allowances for any outcome bias that might creep in. Our experience with agent (customer) feedback is that getting a sufficient numbers of responses to be representative is a big challenge. So we are now moving from case by case surveys, to an annual or bi-annual on line survey with a follow up phone call.

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