PAS – was the #NPPF helpline a success?

I thought this blog from Alice Lester was rather curious given the announcement that the DCLG say the helpline is no longer taking questions on NPPF policy interpretation.  It rather misses the point about the difference between the meaning of a section and how it should be implemented, the first being a national issue, the second a local one.

A golden rule of customer service helplines is don’t slag off your customers.   Perhaps some telephone helpline CPD is needed?

Yes planners have inherited a culture of being spoonfed – which is regrettable – but if you run a helpline don’t complain about silly questions, they come with the territory, & don’t give confusing and incorrect information on to whom the helpline is open to, and worse don’t stop offering advice or refuse to answer key questions giving the impression the answer wasn’t known or even thought about during NPPF final cut and pasting with the Treasury holding the glue drafting .  This didn’t cause ‘suspicion,’ no it invited ridicule and open mouthed headshaking of the entire planning profession, typical reactions from planners i’ve heard is ‘now i’ve heard it all’, ;’what are those bozos playing at’ ‘worse than in the thick of it’ ‘omnishambles’ etc. .  A very odd position for an advisory service which is supposed to be a paragon to place itself in.  This has not shown PAS & the DCLG at their best , and of all the approaches that need to be taken to restore their standing surliness is surely not amongst them.

The current sink or swim your on your own approach is not localism but balkanism, as we live in an appeal mediated planning system where the meaning of national policy is king.  The statements here and by DCLG give the impression the helpline wasn’t thought through at all at the outset.  What PAS should be asking is what support services and kind of helpline do you are our customers want and how can we best provide it?  Otherwise working in a call centre and slagging off the people at the other end of the line might beckon.

PAS Blog

When the NPPF was launched way back in March 2012, I was asked if I would play the role of ‘Rosemary the telephone operator’ and don a headset to answer some queries  (for anyone unfamiliar with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon canon,  Rosemary  is from the 70′s classic  ’Hong Kong Phooey’). Naturally, I accepted.

As far as I am aware there’s not previously been a help-line set up to deal with queries on a new Government policy document. The intention was clear. Anticipate the cries of  ‘what does this all mean’ and provide instant access to information through dialogue – not through a sheet of answers to questions no-one was asking anyway.

What were the issues?

There was no expectation on likely numbers. As the week progressed, it became clear that there were one or two headline issues people were interested in receiving clarity on. Namely, ‘Where does my plan sit in terms of the transitional arrangements?’, and ‘What has happened to the guidance note that accompanied PPSX?’

We attempted to reduce the volume of calls on these issues by posting information on our discussion forum on the PAS website.  However, there remained a deal of confusion (mistrust?) about the message being received. Or perhaps people didn’t like the answer they were given and wanted a different one!

As the days pass, there are more detailed questions coming through. This is unsurprising as there has now been a chance for people to focus on parts of the NPPF that are ‘live issues’ for them. There certainly seems to be a call for more clarity on ‘process’. Questions such as “Can we still do X when the NPPF doesn’t say we can’t?” seem quite common.

I understand where these questions are coming from, but I feel it’s a sad reflection of the times. Not on the individuals who are asking, but on the legacy of a spoon-fed world where everyone wanted guidance on everything lest they were found unsound for ‘getting it wrong’.

Was it a success?

Whether the help-line is deemed a success or not will no doubt receive a different answer from different people. Did you call it? Did you get an answer you were prepared to believe?

As time goes by, call volumes are falling, but the detail of discussion is growing. It will be worthwhile sharing these conversations more widely, and I know PAS and DCLG are going to look at the best way of doing this.

Whether the help-line is ‘the future’ in terms of moving away from specific guidance to trying to figure things out and having someone to discuss ideas with is another question.

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