David Walters is regulation and governance manager at Staffordshire County Council and chair of the National Highways and Transport Network (NHT) Survey Steering Group. Chris Ames caught up with him at the NHT conference last month.
What is your background and how did you find yourself as chair of the NHT survey steering group?
Twenty-odd years in the highways industry and before that, in the wider industry, including utilities. Within Staffordshire I’ve been in fairly diverse roles, ranging from area highway manager to business improvement [and] lots of other things in between. Staffordshire’s been involved in the NHT survey right from the start.
Originally my link was through the West Midlands regional alliance and I was invited to become part of the steering group. Then when Peter [Radford] stepped down three years ago, it was a natural progression almost, because I’d got that background of involvement and understood where we’d come from. It was a good opportunity to get some consistency going forward.
How has this year’s survey changed and how do you see it changing in the future?
One of the key things with the survey is that it is cost-effective. We do get very good response rates and we’re also very much aware of the benefit of the fact that we can now look back at 10 years worth of data. It’s consistent; you can look at trends. It’s absolutely benchmark-able from authority to authority, which is some of its uniqueness and very much one of the things that we’ve always kept in mind with any of the decisions we’ve made in terms of – what do we want to do differently?
Some of the objectives I set as chair were to strengthen the links back to the regional alliances, to get more involvement in the steering group. We’ve done both of those. But equally to look at how we keep it cost-effective? How we keep it relevant to local authorities – to local authorities who want to participate in it as well?
This year, based on the feedback, we have looked at a number of pilots. We’ve looked a shortening the questionnaire to see if we can improve response rates. We’ve looked at whether we can push people to complete online web-based surveys and we’ve also tried to see whether we can improve or change the age profile.
We find – and the NHT survey is not unique – that the postal survey tends to generally be filled in by the older person in the household. Which does tend to push our age profile up a little bit towards middle and retirement age. That’s a challenge. I think that’s one of the areas this year that we are reflecting on that we’ve still got to try to tackle going forward.
One of the challenges we recognise with that is that if we go to a different survey methodology we will lose the ability to benchmark, because it won’t be random sampling, and so we lose a lot of the benefits of the survey.
What would you say to encourage new councils to take part in the survey next year?
I think for me the survey is the starting point for that sharing of benchmarking, good practice, best practice, however you want to describe that, the networking opportunities to the wider CQC [customers, quality, cost] efficiency network.
It is a requirement identified in the DfT self-assessment. But I think it’s more than that. It’s about the knowledge, the sharing and the opportunity that you get from being part of the survey with the CQC network, the performance management network, all of which have developed from that basis of having the NHT public satisfaction survey. So I would say, get involved. Now more than ever we need people to work together to take the opportunity to make us even more efficient, as we can, in the challenges that we are facing.
We heard this morning about the NHT’s ‘three-legged stool’ – customers, quality and cost. Does it depend on all the legs being the same length, or is one element more significant than the other two?
I think we’ve generally kept a straight bat on that – or a straight three legged stool! We don’t really want to skew it.
Are authorities that have high satisfaction levels better at maintaining their networks or perhaps just better at communicating what they are doing, or are they part of the same thing?
Certainly that’s something we are hoping to explore [at the conference] in more detail. I think it’s understanding what it is that is influencing people’s perception of the condition of the network and it’s probably more than the pure asset management view that we might take as highway engineers, so communication is a part of that listening to people and then telling people what you’ve done and then repeatedly telling people what you’ve done so that when they are asked to fill in a questionnaire about highways they are answering that questionnaire with a broader knowledge of what is going on.
There’s so much work that goes on, on our networks every day, that goes unseen. People are at work; they are at school, and they don’t see it a lot of the time.
I think yes, we can see that communication can drive improvements in satisfaction but we are measuring perception. There are other things going on in the background that we need to continue to work to understand.
What can authorities learn from the survey that will help them make the right long-term asset management decisions or, to put it another way, to what extent do customer priorities risk distracting local authorities from taking a longer-term asset management approach?
I think it’s a bit like the conversation about the three-legged stool. The NHT information is a part of a broader picture, and we’ve heard good examples this morning of where the NHT information has helped in a political environment to secure political investment. It has helped in the one example about the [Warwickshire] road safety education team, facing a significant challenge in terms of funding but actually, through changing the way the service is delivered, seeing a significant increase in satisfaction.
So I think it’s part of a tool, in the same way as a three-legged stool. It’s asset condition, it’s communication, it’s public satisfaction. It’s the member post bag. What are members receiving direct from the public as well, what are they seeing when we go to elections? What’s coming through the ballot box?
What potential do you see for the NHT’s work to influence Department for Transport funding decisions?
I think there’s a massive set of data. How do we use the NHT data either at a local or a national level to help increase the visibility of the benefit that investing in infrastructure has? Not just in terms of growth – and growth is very important for all of us – but actually great infrastructure creates great places. Great places encourage people to come and live and visit and we see the growth that comes from that.
So I think one of the challenges we’ve got is to make sure that that data set – both locally and nationally – is really at the heart of that decision-making. There’s work going on with that through the HMEP group, with Connect and Share. It’s part of the DfT self-assessment. We are talking about the DfT self-assessment survey and is there a next step beyond Band 3? OK, so how could we use the NHT data to influence what that next step looks like – to encourage even better use of it to secure the benefits and secure the improvements for infrastructure?
Do you expect the implementation of the new code of practice over the next year to impact the survey results?
I’m not sure that we’ll see it in the next year. Obviously a key part of the code is stakeholder involvement, stakeholder engagement and understanding the customer. So I’d certainly be expecting local authorities to be making even better use of the NHT data to help inform that, in the same way we were talking about influencing investment and the national picture.
So I think we would be encouraging people to use the data. In terms of next year, will we see a significant shift next year? I think that’s probably a bit early to say because I think local authorities are still in different places in terms of implementing the code.
But again it links back to that DfT self-assessment questionnaire. How we build it into that? Does the DfT self-assessment questionnaire in future change in shape to align more back to the recommendations of Well-managed highway infrastructure? And how does NHT, in the wider sense, fit in with that? Because it’s not just the NHT public satisfaction survey. How does CQC fit in with it, how does performance management, and how does the survey? The three legged stool!