The comfort zone for improvement

Our most recent round of benchmarking has focused on giving councils the ability to set planning fees.  Incidentally, it’s also one of the largest projects the sector has ever undertaken with 220 councils and some 9,000 planners taking part. Well done local government!

If you have been to any of our benchmarking events or been present when two or more councils have gathered in the name of benchmarking, you will have heard me say “fee setting is the easy bit; wait until you’re customers start questioning the value they get for that fee”.

Like never before we are all going to be under (positive) pressure to demonstrate that we:

  • provide a value for money service
  • are committed to keeping prices as low as possible, and
  • act on what we know makes our customers frown at us

I have been secretly concerned about how best Planning Advisory Service can support this next phase. Concerned because, apart from a few pockets of success, our attempts at supporting councils to achieve real change have had 3 points of failure:

  • Our normal MO of helping groups of councils doesn’t work. What could be efficient use of our resources usually means the quick and eager lose interest waiting for the rest and the whole thing grinds to a halt;
  • A disproportionate amount of time is spent on the small impact/easy to solve issues at the expense of the bigger impact/harder to solve ones;
  • Under-estimating the effort it takes to change ‘hearts and minds’ and get planners to even consider some of the more uncomfortable solutions to their problems and that it’s ok to be innovative and take calculated risks.

The first two points are fairly straightforward to address. I will be more picky about the groups I work with and change (see later) the improvement planning part of our support. The third sounds like one of those that should have the ‘culture change’ label stuck to it and then used as an excuse next time my boss starts asking awkward questions about lack of results… but that’s not my style.

Preparing planners to make decisions

I am quietly excited about some work we have started doing with a few councils that I think will help them become more comfortable and confident about making decisions about how to improve and deliver the service.

As a working title I have been referring to this approach as a ‘golden triangle’ (hopefully someone will be so offended by the naffness of the name that they’ll come up with a better one).

Here’s what it looks like:

Benchmark Data and Performance Metrics – focusing on what matters

Using your benchmarking report solely to set fees is a wasted opportunity. Once you get to know your way around a CIPFA benchmarking report, you can tune into those combinations of data that whisper “We’re making something big and bad happen – do something about us”, instead of the ‘noise’ of lots of numbers that are interesting but insignificant. It is a skill though to get councils to focus on what matters. We’ll be looking at their benchmarking report with them and agreeing what’s important.

Models of Delivery Options Appraisalconfidence to remain, confidence to change

Options appraisal assesses whether a planning service (with all of its unique and special attributes, things to protect and ambitions to achieve) would benefit from being delivered in a different way by using the evidence from the benchmark. I like this approach because it is even-handed and impartial, and is not about steering a council down any particular route*. We’ll help councils and their staff learn about a range of different delivery models, and help assess if there are advantages over the way things are currently done.

There are two big benefits here.

Firstly, this approach educates planning staff and managers about the very real alternatives that exist for delivering planning. I think this will be a key part in addressing the ‘culture’ thing – knowledge takes away the fear some of us have about making difficult decisions and choices especially those choices involve sharing, giving something away or buying something in.

Secondly, what better for a head of service under corporate pressure to jump one way or another, than to have a nice concise report and evidence to use to either promote change, prompt investment or defend a status quo?

*”Shared Services” is one of those dangerous flavour-of-the-month-type phrases that those in councils who know the cost of planning but don’t understand its value will try to steer us all down. For many services, it is a model of delivery that might work, but the planning jury that I sit on is still firmly out – see

Improvement Workshops

No science here, we’ll continue to use the SPRINT ‘Design Studio’ approach but focus on the big issues identified in the data analysis stage, working them through to a set of actionable improvement steps.

The decision-making briefcase

I think about the three aspects above as making the contents of the planning managers decision-making briefcase.  You can’t plan to improve, change or innovate without considering all of the options available to you. Nor can you properly consider the different options of delivery unless you fully understand your present operation. And both of these things require evidence and information (the benchmark reports and performance metrics).

The briefcase equips the decision makers in planning departments with all of the information and data they need to be confident about making decisions – whether that be about choosing to change or a sound case for standing still. Once councils are confident about making change we will look at ways we can support them with implementing and managing the change process.

My next post on this topic will be to tell you if councils are ‘biting’ and what we’ve managed to achieve.


One thought on “The comfort zone for improvement

  1. Pingback: Well done will always be better than well said « Planning Advisory Service

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