Last month RichardPrichard told us about the PAS ‘sector-led improvement session with the ‘Top 10’ councils . We wanted to understand what makes a good planning service good. This blog contains my reflections on the session and a preview of a new improvement support toolkit we’re developing based on the collective learning.
What have we learned about ‘good’?
If I had to highlight 2 things it’d be these:
- There’s no magic formula or one good way
Saying to councils ‘do this and you’ll improve’ doesn’t work. It’s a cliché but ‘good practice’ is just ‘practice’ that works well because it fits an organisation’s goals, is properly resourced, and sits in an operating environment that allows it to thrive. We forget this while we are dismissing an idea because ‘it will never work in our place’ or making things worse because we’ve not thought through the organisational/operating aspects.
2. Make friends with risk and only do what you have to
We do so much unnecessary work because of inconsistency of practice or because we treat and process every application in the same way. Classic questions about using site visits / site notices / or validating everything to death can effectively be addressed with a little attention to understanding the variety in your work, working through the consequences of ‘what could go wrong (really)’ and asking if everything we do is necessary all of the time.
My colleague RichardPritchard summed it up really nicely the other day when he said: “I think the overarching thing I took away from the top 10 was that most places are running on autopilot. When you compare what places do with what they *must* do the difference is staggering. No one reads the DMPO, even though it is surprisingly easy to read and understand. So, hack everything back (not just validation).”
Good ideas aren’t enough
In the past we’ve focused too much on good practice and not enough on helping councils create the environments for the practice to work well in. There’s a whole host of things that have to be harnessed and continuously challenged if good things are going to happen in planning services. I’d bundle these together as:
- Ways of thinking; questions, challenge, judgement, empowerment
- Ways of doing: processes, practice, management, enablers (politics, IT)
- Ways of measuring; the things that tell us if our thinking and doing are working
The DM Service Review Toolkit
We’ve turned these (slightly abstract) 3 ‘ways’ into a practical two-part DM Service Review Toolkit. The toolkit breaks the whole DM process down into 2 parts:
- the ‘Cultures and Enablers of DM Success’
2. the DM Process ‘Good Practice Crib-sheet’:
Unlike a guide or case study that simply describes an idea, the toolkit works a bit like a survey:
It steers a council through a structured series of challenges to the way it delivers the whole planning service. The crib-sheet design allows councils to make notes and capture their own thoughts, ideas, and questions that can be wrapped up into an action/change plan. The process is straight-forward, it works by:
- Identifying the key issues that councils are grappling with;
- Outlines ideas for addressing them;
- Questions, challenges and suggests measures that allows councils to do the thinking themselves to understand how to move towards a better way of working.
Different councils will require different support for doing this. For many it will be obvious who is best placed to pick up and use the toolkit and others will appreciate some independent and external help. We’re also going to test a few different formats.
Preview – Cultures and Enablers of Success
Challenging and changing ingrained cultures doesn’t have to be like ‘turning a tanker’ that the experts will have us believe. I’ve seen enough evidence that culture can be changed quite quickly if you empower staff doing the job and give them responsibility for inventing new ways of working. There’s also the other ‘enablers’ – the management approaches, the systems, the politics which all need to be developed alongside changes made to ways of working. Here’s a taster of how the toolkit helps councils think about these things:
- Performance management; links to the ‘purpose of planning’, pays attention to National Indicators but focuses on customers, allows you to understand and act
- Financial management; understands income/ expenditure and the value delivered and received, and the impact of the service on the place (e.g. jobs, houses, economy)
- Resource Management; organised around the variety in the work, allocates work sensibly, plans for the unexpected, gets the ‘retention’ part of ‘recruitment and retention’ right.
- Processes and Admin: officers and members make it work, focuses on customers/outcomes, regularly reviewed and not a hostage of the ‘new IT system’
- Political Leadership: understands the ward (local knowledge) / governance (challenge) / and committee (good decisions in public) roles and probity (of course).
Preview – DM Good Practice Crib-Sheet
The toolkit is rooted firmly in the day-to-day aspects of the planning process as planners deliver and customers experience it. It focuses on the direct operating environment and processes of planning without getting distracted by ‘side issues’ such as the content of your staff’s annual appraisal process or if the service has Charter Marks or ISO accreditation. Here’s a taster of how the toolkit helps councils think about some selected parts of the planning process:
- Pre-application; it’s risky in the wrong hands; it has to be proportionate, costed properly, and focused on value not just income
- Validation; understands the role of risk, requirements/lists regularly reviewed, asks: is every missing item really a show-stopper?
- Consultation: staff empowered to decide how far/wide, understands the legal minimum, shares results early with stakeholders
- Decision making: understands that ‘yes’ is usually the decision, works with customers on issues not against them, uses tools available to use time efficiently.
- Reports: understands who they are for and the purpose they serve, understands the balance between detail and risk, and are about more than just ‘covering our backs’.
- Committee: the triggers are understood and consistently applied, procedures are regularly reviewed, and member’s regularly input and feedback.
Testing it out and sharing the learning
We are about to go on the road with 2 events to test the toolkit out and share what we’ve learned about how the best councils organise their planning services. Councils will get a chance to use the new toolkit and access the support. You can book on the sessions here:
Steering towards good
Good ideas and practice have the best chance of improving things if we understand the mechanics of what makes them work in different places. The DM Review toolkit will help steer (rather than dictate) councils towards ‘good’ and give them the best chance of achieving it by asking the right questions about how good ideas work and how to make them work.