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01/10/2013

How to define a good planning service

Planning is uniquely difficult – not only do we have the same problems as GPs (sometimes ‘success’ is something not happening), but when it does we’re often mediating between people who want opposing things, writes Richard Crawley.
 
We keep at it because it’s important. And a definition of 'good planning' doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. It’s clear there is no single measure, but here are my thoughts on what we can measure to improve a planning service. In this case, I’m going to concentrate on the applications process only.
 
Three perspectives are primary. I’d restrict to these three and spend time getting the quality of the data right.
 
The applicant: Don’t cavil – this is your customer and we need to make the process easy  and worthwhile for them.
 
The ward councillors: All of them. They have a unique perspective on the politics of planning and should see all sides of the developmental process.
 
Your staff: They want to do a good job. Does your organisation allow them to do so?
 

"A definition of 'good planning' doesn't have to be perfect to be useful"

 
To reduce these things to an absolute minimum, I’d start with just three areas: how well we hit targets, how much waste we tolerate and how much it all costs. I suppose it's just because it’s annoyingly preventable that I’d have several ‘waste’ indicators:
 
Repeat applications: Often following a withdrawn application. No fee. Repeat consultation. Annoying for everyone.
 
Reworked applications: Usually at the initial stages of validation. Every time an application is picked up, assessed as wanting and flipped back to the agent, it costs time and money.
 
Appeals: Appeals represent a failure, even when you ‘win’ and are a sound indicator of poor quality service when you lose.
 
Success: How often do you do what you say you’ll do – which is issue a decision on time?
 
Cost: Part of doing things well is to do things slickly and that means applying resources where they’ll make the most difference. No service can afford to be cost-blind.
 
So if I were setting out to improve my department, I’d use three opinions and five facts:
 
1. Applicant happiness.
2. Councillor happiness.
3. Staff happiness.
4. Waste on repeat applications.
5. Waste on reworked applications.
6. Waste on appeals and lost appeals.
7. How many applications hit their target? How many missed?
8. How much extra did the council have to pay per application to make this happen?
 
Then I’d think about plan how to improve these eight indicators. In six months’ time I’d measure again. And that, friends, is how continuous improvement rolls.
 
Richard Crawley is a programme manager for the Planning Advisory Service and specialises in leadership.
 
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