Columnist Richard Rolke touches on customer service at Vernon city hall

It’s not uncommon to hear businesspeople, and particularly developers, complain about the bureaucratic hoops they jump through.

But the latest City of Vernon customer satisfaction survey indicates that public perception may be changing.

“When asked about overall satisfaction with the service received from staff, 90 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied and 10 per cent were unsatisfied,” said Kim Flick, Vernon’s director of community development, in a report to council.

“Seventy per cent indicated they would recommend doing business in Vernon with others in the development industry.  Ten per cent would not.”

Now before I go any further, it should be noted that of the hundreds of surveys handed out with every development application, only 10 have been returned since the start of 2014. The sampling is extremely small and may lead some to question the validity of the results. But even though most developers haven’t taken the time to fill out the survey, the process indicates that progress is being made at city hall.

“When asked how their experience in Vernon compared with similar projects in other jurisdictions, 30 per cent indicated it was similar or OK, 10 per cent said it was superior and 10 per cent said it took longer,” said Flick in her report.

Specific questions were asked, including if their application met the timelines city staff told them to expect. Seventy per cent agreed or strongly agreed while the remaining 30 per cent were neutral, disagreed or didn’t answer.

There were exactly the same results about receiving callbacks or responses to enquiries within 24 hours.

Ninety per cent of the respondents agreed that city staff were courteous and helpful while 10 per cent disagreed. It was a similar breakdown when asked if staff provided sufficient information about the application process.

Beyond just backpatting, the survey provides the city with opportunities to continue to improve customer service.

Among the ways suggested by survey participants are treating citizens respectfully, onsite meetings with applicants to see what is proposed, ensuring costs are noted on the city website, providing a contact name and number online for basic inquiries, speeding up the approval process further and reducing application and processing costs for affordable housing.

Now there is no question that getting a development permit approved can drag, but that’s not necessarily the fault of city staff. Their hands are often tied by legislated timelines, including requirements for referrals to various agencies, including provincial ministries, which don’t always move that quickly. Getting public input can also stretch out, particularly if the proposed land use is contentious.

There is also the reality that municipal staff are only human and can only take on so much work before they go cross-eyed. Unless there is a sudden hiring spree at taxpayers’ expense, then developers must rely on the existing resources.

Obviously there is always room for improvement and there will be the occasional civil servant who is having a bad day or isn’t necessarily a people person. But the customer satisfaction survey, even with the limited responses, shows that city planners are being responsive.

Now if businesspeople would only reciprocate and actually fill out those feedback surveys so the bureaucratic wheels are sped up even further.