From bed bugs to noisy neighbours - problems like these pose an interesting challenge to the customer responsiveness of Bromley Council's Environmental Health & Trading Standards (EH&TS) service. Meeting the varied expectations of Bromley's 300,000 residents in matters of public health, fair standards of trading and the environment may seem an almost impossible task. But the 90 employees of Bromley's EH&TS services meet extraordinary demands on a daily basis.
The aim of Bromley Council's EH&TS services is to promote and protect the public health of the people who live in, work in and visit Bromley, to ensure fair standards of trading and to enhance the quality of the environment - all at a cost and quality acceptable to customers. Food safety, public health services, housing services, pollution monitoring, safety in the workplace, animal welfare and weights and measures all fall within the EH&TS remit. Any complaints concerning public health nuisance or consumer problems such as noise, housing conditions, rubbish, pollution, drainage, smells, pests, food, incorrect pricing, faulty goods and services all fall directly into the lap of EH&TS. 'Demand for the services we provide increases daily,' says chief environmental health officer Richard Foulger, voicing the concern facing public services everywhere, 'but resources are constantly diminishing'.
Providing high-quality service to Borough of Bromley residents is further complicated by the unusually varied nature of both the customer base and the services required. 'It's very much a borough of contrasts,' Foulger explains. Straddling rural Kent and inner London, Bromley covers the largest area of all London boroughs and some parts of the borough are among the top 1.5% most deprived areas in England. The EH&TS customer base includes 1,500 traveller families, the largest settled traveller population in Britain; 3,000 Somali/Kurdish refugees; and an above-average proportion of residents aged 75 or over.
Explains Foulger, 'Our challenge is to provide high-quality service and ensure that this service is readily available to everyone living and working in Bromley.' In pursuit of that goal, EH&TS decided five years ago to transform its operations by putting customers first. A new model of Total Quality Service was developed, based on a vision in which quality of service, as perceived by the customer, was the main driving force.
Foulger and team developed a written charter of the services on offer and the standards of service that customers could expect. This includes a pledge to respond to all complaints or requests for service within three working days, or within 24 hours if the problem poses a serious threat to public health. All non-conformities to the pledge are fully investigated and corrective action taken. Performance against targets is regularly communicated to staff and reviewed by Council members. Customers are regularly surveyed to establish their most important service areas and discover the quality of service they receive. At present, 84% of EH&TS customers express themselves as very satisfied or satisfied.
EH&TS has set up quality improvement teams including one with special responsibility for developing new customer care initiatives. This has developed a number of improvements such as the redesign of leaflets for ethnic communities and training for staff on issues such as deaf awareness.
The team also produced a customer care policy and good practice document for all employees.
Four years ago, a Quality Promises initiative was launched to improve areas of specific customer concern. Small groups of staff volunteered to work on projects of particular interest and came up with an impressive range of improvements. One team successfully tackled the problem of neighbourhood noise: innovations introduced include a noise mediation service. Another team targeted improvements aimed at Bromley's food businesses and came up with a clean food award scheme, the distribution of more information in languages such as Farsi, Hindi, Chinese and Bengali, and seminars to disseminate information on changes in the law.
Greater publicity has resulted in a 100% increase in customer demand for this service over the past three years. Demand has been met with no loss of quality, by reviewing procedures and training existing staff so that they can be moved between departments to cope with fluctuations in workload.
One novel customer service initiative involves partnership working. EH&TS recently launched a safety equipment loan scheme, which aims to reduce the number of accidents in the home among children under five from disadvantaged families. Partners include Ravensbourne NHS Trust, Broomleigh Housing Association, Bromley Centre for Voluntary Services and safety equipment manufacturers Hago. Together they provide safety equipment such as staircase guards. Working in partnership, says Gill Clegg, health development manager, improves the level of service on offer through access to new resources like joint finance, better targeting of those resources, and improved working relationships.
Foulger believes that the plaudits for these and similar customer-focused initiatives rest entirely with the EH&TS staff themselves. 'The Total Quality Service vision was based on ensuring that everyone understood their part in making sure things turned out right for the customer,' he explains. To help employees achieve that goal, EH&TS introduced comprehensive competency and skill matrices for all activities. These matrices, developed by staff themselves, outline the necessary skills and competencies required to carry out all major functions of the organisation. Training needs can be identified through this mechanism as well as the corporate performance development scheme, which requires the setting of agreed development targets for each member of staff and a formal six-monthly appraisal.
Helped by these training and development opportunities, staff now drive the improvement process themselves. Devolved decision-making ensures that they can resolve complaints as soon as they arise. Staff suggestions and quality improvement teams provide a steady stream of customer-focused innovations. Employees are encouraged to 'communicate freely, not defensively; listen; follow up swiftly; and care'. 'Although our customers don't have a lot of choice because we are the only provider of most of the services we offer, we aim to treat each customer as if they did,' says Foulger. It's a philosophy that has yet to infiltrate much of the public sector.
Key Business Lessons
- Never assume you understand your customers' needs: the Kent Association for the Blind surprised EH&TS staff by declaring a preference for larger print and audio tapes to texts in Braille
- Work in partnership: it brings access to greater resources and improved working relationships
- Involve customers in improvement: consult all interested parties including minority groups
- Ensure staff are multi-skilled in order to meet fluctuations in demand for different services Ask customers to prioritise their needs: it assists in the allocation of scarce resources.