Part 6: Managing relationships with customers and stakeholders

Auckland Council: How it deals with building consents.

In this Part, we look how Auckland Council interacts with its customers and stakeholders and whether the way it interacts is seen to be effective.

Builders, designers, owners, prospective buyers of buildings, banks, and financiers are all customers for Building Control's services. Also, there can be "long-term" or "delayed" customers – those who buy properties from the initial owner but who look to Auckland Council for certainty that those properties are fit for purpose and comply with the Building Code.

Auckland Council, like all building consent authorities, finds itself caught between the exacting requirements of the Building Code and the financial and time pressures that customers place on it.

We looked at the ways that Auckland Council communicates with customers and stakeholder organisations.

We also interviewed four architectural firms and four building firms to get feedback on their perceptions of the standard of service from Auckland Council.

Communicating with customers and stakeholders

Auckland Council's website on building control matters

We found Auckland Council's extensive website for building control matters difficult to navigate. However, it does include a glossary, PDFs of all relevant forms, and a "what's new" section.

In 2013, a survey showed that 77% of users were satisfied with how easy it was to navigate the website. This compares to 65% of users being satisfied in 2012.

Building Bulletin

Auckland Council has published three Building Bulletins, the last of which was published in May 2014. They contain useful information, such as:

  • why building consent applications fail at the final inspection;
  • the top 10 reasons a code compliance certificate is refused; and
  • the top 10 reasons for delays in processing building consent applications.

The Building Bulletins are available on Auckland Council's website.

Managing relationships with customers

Surveys of customer experience

Auckland Council carried out customer experience surveys in 2011/12 and 2012/13. In 2012/13, 64% of customers were satisfied with Building Control services, exceeding the target of 61%. In 2011/12, 57% of customers were satisfied.

However, we note that satisfaction with the code compliance certificate process fell from 47% in 2011/12 to 36% in 2012/13.

In August 2014, Auckland Council commissioned a wide-ranging audit entitled Customer-Centric Regulatory Audit. The scope was to look at business processes from a customer perspective. One of the objectives of the audit was to provide input into the NewCore initiative. A range of external customers were asked:

  • What were the satisfaction points?
  • What were the pain points?
  • What would make the process better?

In October 2014, Auckland Council received the results of the audit. Common "pain points" were inconsistencies in advice or lack of advice, "surprises", time delays, the amount of paperwork, and expense.

Interviewees said that consistent advice, more timely delivery, online consent processing, and Auckland Council appreciating the holding costs that customers face would make the process better.

As part of our audit, we interviewed four architectural firms and four building firms. We asked questions about consent application processing and inspections, including:

  • What is your experience with Council timeliness?
  • Do you perceive Council staff to have sufficient technical knowledge?
  • How do you perceive Council work practices?
  • What is the communication like?

Customer enquiries

Auckland Council records the number and nature of enquiries from customers. These enquiries can be verbal, electronic, or on paper. The number of enquiries ranges from 500 to 1000 a month. Most of the enquiries fit into one of four themes:

  • the building consent application process;
  • when a consent is required;
  • whether properties are in "wind zones";8 and
  • Auckland Council's fees and charges.

The information is analysed periodically and recommendations are made on how to better use resources to respond to enquiries.

Customer complaints

Customer complaints are also logged into Auckland Council's Customer Relationship System. The relatively few (104) complaints in 2013 centred mainly on:

  • bad driving;
  • service level time frames;
  • the attitude of inspectors; and
  • fees and charges.

Each complaint is recorded in a "Complaints Improvement Opportunities Form". This might lead to a "Continuous Improvement Form", which describes a need to change a policy, a form, or website wording. These needs are relayed to the Building Control management team.

Recommendation 3
We recommend that Auckland Council improve how it communicates with building consent customers by:
  • providing better guidance material to help in advancing the consenting process;
  • making its website easier to navigate;
  • encouraging telephone calls to supplement and better explain formal communications;
  • increasing the target for customer satisfaction;
  • more proactively addressing the underlying problems that lead to common customer complaints;
  • ensuring that staff have training that puts them "in the shoes" of the customer, so they are better able to respond proactively and with empathy; and
  • extending and refining the web-based consents tracking system, so that customers can see at any time the progress of their consent application.

Managing relationships with stakeholders

Occasionally, Auckland Council meets its Customer Advisory Group, which includes major customers and stakeholders. The meetings are about Auckland Council's initiatives and important matters are discussed.

Building Control staff contribute to industry group meetings and events. These include:

  • the Building Officers Institute of New Zealand;
  • the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand;
  • the New Zealand Institute of Architects;
  • MBIE working parties and advisory groups;
  • the Property Council; and
  • various trade associations.

Our observations about Auckland Council's relationships with customers and stakeholders

Auckland Council has many channels to provide information, receive feedback, and communicate with stakeholders and customers on building control matters.

We consider that Auckland Council has a sound approach to communication, but that that communication could be more effective.

The overriding message in our discussions with the architectural and building firms was that Auckland Council's communication and consistency need to be improved.

The firms told us that they felt Auckland Council's processes and interactions were overly bureaucratic. Some saw the approach of Building Control staff, especially less experienced staff, as excessively bound by rules and unable to see a wider picture. Firms told us that some Building Control staff were reluctant to speak to them.

On the other hand, firms saw Auckland Council's commercial consent application processors as pragmatic and empathetic. The quality of staff at Manukau Building Consultants was seen as being generally better than other staff. Auckland Council's inspectors were generally seen as practical in their approach, although at times not always familiar with new building products.

Staff at building firms, who were generally more satisfied than those at architectural firms about Auckland Council's services, praised initiatives to simplify and speed up processes.

Some of the negative comments must be seen as part of the "cut and thrust" of Auckland Council ensuring that any consent complies with the building code and designers wanting to speed up the process and not have matters to resolve.

However, some communication weaknesses are evident. We suggest that the target of 61% for overall customer satisfaction, which seems relatively low, be increased to encourage improved communication.

Although customers make few formal complaints, the same types of complaints recur. It is not clear what actions have been taken to address the underlying problems. The process and accountability to address recurring problems need to be improved.

Also, the specific common problems that are evident from the Customer-Centric Regulatory Audit and our audit need to be addressed.

Auckland Council recognises that the target and actual results do not show high satisfaction. Surveys are carried out monthly and reported every quarter to better uncover underlying problems. Surveys now include email responses, rather than telephone-only responses, so more information is available to assess problems.

It is important that customers can find out the status of their consent application at any point in the process. Customers' comments suggest that they prefer to use the telephone than search the website, but often they do not receive an immediate response. One solution might be to introduce a web-based tracking system similar to what courier firms use, so that customers can see the progress of their application at any time.

Auckland Council can draw from other work that shows the importance of complaints in helping to improve services. Our August 2014 reports Accident Compensation Corporation: How it deals with complaints and Ministry of Social Development: How it deals with complaints contain relevant information.

8: "Wind zone" is a complex term defined in the applicable district plan and also described in the publication, Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan.

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