This is a follow-up to my previous post in which I tried to explain why I think agent accreditation schemes are wrong.
I’ll begin with what may be an obvious point: planning applications are an awkward mix of the tricky, the unusual and important. People working in the midst of it can forget that our work is not easy even for intelligent people, and there is no learning curve when your only experience of planning is once or twice in a lifetime.
Just as conveyancing solicitors exist in a similar venn diagram so should planning agents. But, as Val commented, there are some bad agents out there. And there are some agents who use their planning department as the double-checker or the quality control mechanism rather than earning their fee by doing a good job.
But accreditation is not the answer. I want to help the customers to make a choice between good and bad agents. In this way good agents thrive and bad agents either improve or go bust.
Helping people to help themselves
Most councils I talk to are sheepish about recommending particular agents. If someone asks, there is normally some kind of list but (probably quite rightly) council officers shy away from recommending one company over another. The list is offered without warranty.
But, to put yourself in the shoes of the customer, what sort of thing would you want to know ?
It’s a pretty straightforward list, and all of the data is already public (or derivable from information in the public domain). it’s just not been gathered together and publicised.
Customers want an agent that:
- Covers their sort of development
- Is cheap / available / interested
- Is good at being a planning agent
- Get’s the answer “yes” quickly
As a council, using information from the history of planning applications, I reckon I can answer every question apart from ‘2’. And this does not require any judgement, or process that might be challenged as being unfair. It’s just crunching – and could be reverse engineered if you really wanted to. Apart from perhaps the answer to ‘3’ which might need some aspects of validation info that is not always public.
But by making access to this information easy, and actively promoting it – and encouraging the agents themselves to promote it – you drive the work towards the good agents. And, in turn, the council receives the benefit of quality work that is easy to say “yes” to.
And all without cost or challenge. lovely. And easy to use. The customer sends an outline of their need to the top 3 agents with a note that says “If you’re available and interested let me know how much you’d charge”. All 4 questions sorted.
How does this work in practice ?
To keep this brief, I’ll put aside all the “communicating with stakeholders” stuff that this needs. You can’t just retrospectively publish these statistics without really annoying people.
There are only a few things to do to set this up. You might as well try it – even if you decide not to make things public.
- Divide work into chunks. Some agents only do trees – others specialise in heritage. Work backwards from our objective – we’re helping people answer the question “who can help me with my sort of application ?”. Maybe you could recycle the ‘R’ codes we use for benchmarking. Just saying.
- capture the identity of the agent in a way that helps you aggregate. Is “3-D Architecture” the same outfit as “3D Architecture Ltd” ?. use the company reg no.
- Decide on your timescale and cut-offs. I didn’t go back further than a year. I didn’t think averages made sense for agents with less than 5 applications. If you are very big or very small you’d want to change these numbers.
- Publish the facts on each decision notice, as part of the standard template. This application was submited on xxx, and made valid on yyy. This decision was issued on zzzzz, aaaa days later.
- Run the numbers. This is the easy bit. For each chunk of work, for those agents with more than 5 applications calculate: the proportion valid on receipt*, the time to decision and the proportion that are “yes”.
- publish the agent’s numbers, along with a narrative that sets out what they mean (and don’t mean) and when they’ll be republished. Maybe every quarter on a rolling 12 month ? How are customers going to find this stuff ? maybe on the friendly wrap-around offer you have with building control and similar functions ? Definitely if you encourage the “good agent” community to link to it.
- throughout you need to meet and discuss this approach with your agents. Encourage them to use these metrics as part of their offer to customers. This way new entrants are not entirely disadvantaged, as they can offer to match the leading agent’s performance (or suffer some kind of penalty).
What about unintended consequences ?
There are two things I’d want to think through a bit more. One is an intended consequence, the other is a risk.
Councils tend to see agents as the problem. This is not always true. Turning this scheme on its head, an agent who puts work into two councils will be able to compare and contrast their performance. For the first time they would have the data to be able to demonstrate to a council that it was out of step with its peers. I think this is great, and this kind of triangulation is very healthy for monopoly services.
But what about the agent with an impeccable reputation who has an awkward client – the customer who doesn’t care about policy and the likelihood of failure and just wants someone to represent their wishes ? Well, if i were that agent I might run two companies. Into one I’d funnel all the well-behaved work and reap the benefit of great statistics. This is the stuff I’d use on my adverts. Into the other I’d put the awkward stuff, the work that has got “appeal” potential. I’m not sure that there is much to be done to stop this risk, and I’m not sure I would if I could. This is about rewarding the quality of agents, not punishing agents for agreeing to represent awkward clients.
I’m very grateful for the help and advice of several wise council officers, and will hopefully be back with the public results of our R&D shortly. Let me know if you’re thinking of something similar and we can compare notes. It’s not rocket science, but I’m convinced it’s more sensible than accreditation because it puts the customer (and their choices) at the heart of the improvement process – not compliance with the rules.
* Note that one beartrap is the invalidity brought about by the Portal and the VAT on payment issue. It looks like they might be sorting this out (at last!) but do *not* make things invalid just because smaller agents get their punters to send in a separate cheque that is then matched up in the office. This is technically invalid in the interim, but is not useful as a proxy for agent quality.