The private sector rarely admits it can learn from the public sector but Bromley Council's Environmental Health & Trading Standards (EH&TS) service is a wholly exceptional case. Despite annual budget cuts and escalating customer expectations, it continues to provide a level of customer responsiveness which knocks most private-sector organisations into a cocked hat.
The mission of Bromley's EH&TS service is to protect and improve public health and to provide a fair and safe trading environment. For Bromley's 300,000 residents that means dealing with problems ranging from stray dogs to suspect Saturday night curries. The EH&TS food safety responsibilities include inspecting food premises and investigating food poisoning outbreaks. Public health services deal with all manner of unwelcome house visitors such as fleas and cockroaches and the housing service is on hand to help Bromley's residents maintain their homes in a habitable condition.
Pollution monitoring, workplace safety, animal welfare, fair trading and weights and measures also fall within the EH&TS remit. Any complaints concerning public health nuisance or consumer problems such as noise, housing conditions, rubbish, pollution, smells, pests, incorrect pricing, faulty goods and services, trade descriptions and incorrect weights and measures all land directly on the EH&TS lap.
As winners of this award last year, Richard Foulger, chief environmental health officer, believes the success of EH&TS is producing its own set of challenges. 'The better we are at providing the services people want, the greater the demand for those services becomes,' he points out. One example of an EH&TS initiative that has created its own unstoppable momentum is its service to deal with neighbourhood noise. As most noise nuisance occurs when council workers have left the office (Saturday night is the prime time for anti-social decibels to rise) then why not provide an out-of-hours call-out service to deal with errant burglar and car alarms or over-enthusiastic party-goers?
In response the EH&TS has developed a range of procedures to help residents combat noise pollution including a noise mediation service, new out-of-hours noise patrols and a comprehensive 'Noise Annoys' leaflet describing the assistance available. Greater publicity has resulted in a 100% increase in customer demand for this service over the past three years and 4,000 noise complaints are now received annually. Increased demand for this, and many of the organisations other services, has been met despite budget cuts and no increase in the EH&TS staff of 90.
Where Foulger and his team differ from some public sector organisations is in their passionate conviction that 'public' need not equate with poor or second rate quality. The EH&TS vision is to provide a Total Quality Service and that vision is backed by processes, measurement systems, staff commitment and a culture of improvement. The EH&TS utilises the full range of techniques available for gathering information on customers including customer focus groups, questionnaires, surveys, personal staff visits and, in February 1998, it introduced 'mystery shopping' to test staff responses to a range of plausible enquiries from 'pretend' Bromley residents. The organisation has also introduced formal (ISO 9002) systems to ensure that every customer compliment or complaint is fully investigated and the necessary remedial and preventative action taken. The EH&TS has introduced a wealth of improvements to its services over the past year including a mobile consumer advice service bringing information to deprived areas of the borough and the introduction of a new customer survey form incorporating the standards that customers can expect from services. At present half of EH&TS' customers provide feedback to the organisation and more than 90% of them express themselves satisfied or very satisfied with the service they receive.
The key to providing excellent service standards despite shrinking resources lies with an organisation's employees, says Foulger. 'We have tried to create a culture where people ignore the limitations of the public sector and believe in the possibilities of delivering excellent service,' he explains.
'I believe that it's possible to do "more with less" if everyone is freed up to release a little more of their untapped potential.' In consequence, Foulger has striven to create a 'Just Do It' philosophy where staff have the training to tackle customer challenges and the encouragement to develop any new customer initiatives which they believe will work.
A more flexible, responsive and creative workforce will, Foulger believes, inevitably lead to enhanced service provision. One current change initiative (which costs nothing) is to introduce more flexible working hours which will benefit both employees and customers.
The introduction, for example, of working from home for the trading standards complaint team has led to greater productivity and the advent of flexible work hours for the environmental health complaint team now enables this service to be provided out of hours until midnight. As no council scheme exists for rewarding employee excellence, EH&TS managers fund an employee recognition scheme from their own pockets.
The upshot of public sector employees who are enthusiastic rather than disaffected is customers who feel cared for. Recently called to the flat of an elderly woman who consistently played her TV far too loudly, an EH&TS officer discovered that the woman's partial deafness lay at the root of the problem. The officer offered to take the woman to a TV shop and find a set that would operate with headphones. By his initiative he satisfied both neighbours and offender without the need for expensive legal action. Happy, empowered employees clearly make for contented, cared-for customers. Yet surprisingly few organisations manage to make that simple connection.
KEY BUSINESS LESSONS
- Encourage employee initiatives: EH&TS employees are responsible for creating and administering their own staff surveys
- Devolve power so that, where possible, front-line staff have the authority to resolve complaints
- Improvement raises customer expectations: build flexibility into procedures to cope with extra demand
- Mystery shop: an effective way of gaining impartial, objective data on performance
- Encourage flexibility: most customers now demand out-of-hours service availability.