It’s important for something like PAS to understand its customer’s needs, and to be prepared to shift with them. For many years we have spent most of our time and energy on plan-making, and very little by comparison on the bread & butter business of determining planning applications. We have been aware for a while that this needs to change – the number of councils already asking for support on their DM service is rising sharply and this is even before the sharp wake-up call of designation on performance for minors that is only a short twelve months away.
What does “good” look like ?
Most of us in PAS have not worked in a DM office for many years, and this means our knowledge is out of date. So, we began by being honest with ourselves – we need to ask people currently doing an excellent job. Disregarding the national indicators, we used the information we already hold about councils taking part in the planning quality framework. It was a moment of realisation – we always talk of and treat it as an improvement tool, so in our sessions we help people see what areas need tightening up. But it is also a great way to see who is already performing extremely well.
We designed a quick and simple compound measure that took total end-to-end times for majors, minors and others alongside a waste (withdrawn) measure. This gave us a top ten and we invited them along. We are very grateful to the following councils who were able to say that they would donate a day of their time at quite short notice:
- Nottingham City
How we ran the day
After a certain amount of warming up we settled into a routine. We divided the DM process into chunks that we all could relate to, and then shared ideas and approaches. It quickly became clear that there wasn’t “one way” that things had to be done, but there were often questions and tests that could be applied to expose the principles or outcomes that were important to a council.
One thing that was particularly useful and kept the whole thing moving along was a quick “show & tell” session where people compared how (or whether or not) they approached a particular issue. For example, someone called out “performance management” which could easily have led to a recommendation that councils should monitor individual officers and how well they meet NI targets. However, not one of the councils in the room actually did this. It was an excellent example of espoused theory vs theory in use, and a potent demonstration of why sector-led improvement is pragmatic and honest. Some easy recommendations, that would seem naturally to flow from a particular problem, are not actually helpful in the long term.
What we learned
There are many points of detail in the outcomes that I would not have predicted (the risks around pre-application surprised me) and whatever we end up making will be very useful fodder for anyone running a DM service. Watch this space.
It is also clear that there are certain ‘enablers’ of good performance that are quite difficult to change. Some relate to ‘things’ like ICT but other more difficult ones relate to culture – awareness of and acceptance of risk being an obvious one.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me but one of the most excellent things that happened was that our top 10 councils themselves found the day helpful and productive. It perhaps wasn’t very sexy or trendy in the way that systems thinking or cloud computing might be, but getting a bunch of people away from the treadmill and allow them to think creatively produces fantastic results every time.
Thank you to Wolverhampton for hosting us.