It’s ok to break the rules – re-thinking validation

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun. Katharine Hepburn

I’m currently doing a really enjoyable piece of work helping a planning service’s validation team clear a growing work backlog by getting them to think differently about the ‘rules’. The service has over 2 weeks of work backed up. This may not sound like a disaster, but they’re a few staff down and feeling some heat from the government on their performance stats, so things feel a bit tense. They want a clean run at things. Here’s how they’re going about the work:

  1. Getting the right people in the room

The right people = those that do the job. Managers think it’s their job to come up with solutions to problems but because of all the other things they need to worry about, they normally end up getting in the way. The team know what works and what is bonkers about their job. To get the best ideas, managers should give the people doing the work the room to think and permission to challenge the rules.

00 - PIC  - west suffolk mh + validation march 2016The people doing the job are the best people to solve the problems

  1. Putting things in perspective

When under pressure, it’s easy to focus on the size of the problem (how are we ever going to clear 126 cases?) and remember the most difficult case you’ve ever worked on and assume that every case in the pile will be like that. So, the team breathed in deeply and reminded themselves: 1) variety is the norm in a planning case load; not every case in the pile will require the same amount of work; 2) 70-80% of the cases will be minor or householder applications (less work, lower risk); 3) the council is going to approve about 95% of the cases anyway.

  1. Creative problem solving

The team are the experts and know precisely how they’d do things differently (if it was up to them). So they asked themselves: ‘if we could guarantee that the planners won’t moan and our boss will take responsibility for anything that goes wrong, what shall we change, do differently, or stop doing that will help clear the backlog?’ After some initial shuffling in the seats, and a few repeated: ‘…what? It’s really up to us…?’ and, ‘you’ll clear it with the planners…?’, here’s what the team have come up with, they nicely titled it: “What’s the worst thing that could happen???!!!”

Request 1: Forget the local validation list; go with National requirements only. If a case satisfies National validation requirements but falls foul of the council’s local requirements, validate it.

Request 2: Householder applications without biodiversity/ecology/heritage statements/reports. Validate the application and let the planners decide if the study is really necessary. How many cases is this really going to affect?

Request 3: Up to date contaminated land studies. Worry about whether the application has one, rather than if it is out of date. Once again let the planners decide the best course of action.

Request 4: Validate applications with no fee. ‘Red flag’ the case so no decision is made until the fee is paid. This was the only idea that really divided people, and is still being discussed. On the one hand, the fee problem may be due to the payments system, so if we know the agent then give them the benefit of the doubt – we’ll get our money. On the other hand, why should we work on a case with no fee, when others have managed to get the payment to us? An interesting and useful debate about a real issue in planning (although I have to say, in the 21st Century, I can’t believe this payment matching thing is still an issue).

Request 5: Appeals / other work (that falls to the validation team). Could the two former team members that had recently be made up to Planning Assistants help for a short period? They know the job and can get stuck in straight away.

Request 6: Relax on the descriptions of development. In this place the registered description of the development is important to get right because it is pulled through to other reports and to the decision notice. At the moment, a case can go back and forth to the planners if the description isn’t right. The team, while acknowledging that they had to get better at this, asked if the planners could relax on this for a short period.

Request 7 (my personal favourite) “Hardly any interruptions” …for 8 days? The validation team are the go-to people for anything from ‘there’s no paper in the photocopier’ to ‘the printer won’t work’. None of it their job but they happily help out. For a short period of time they asked their colleagues to sort these things out themselves.

At a meeting on the same day, these requests were put to the planners and managers. The validation team attended (it was important that they witnessed their ideas being discussed and the reactions). The new rules would only apply for a short period, and only to the backlogged cases. Each point was debated and the risks discussed. Each sticking point was quickly overcome using the perspective points made above and asking two simple questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How many times in this batch of 126 applications might the worst thing happen?

It only takes half a day

Each request has been agreed (although the one about fees is, I think, still being debated). In half a day the validation team had the solution to the problem, the sanction of the planners, and the protection of their managers. Not a bad half day’s work. They’ve started on the backlogged cases and have given themselves 8 days to clear the work. They are currently ahead of schedule.

3 key learning points from this work:

  • Taking a ‘managed risk’ approach is vital to the smooth flow of any process that has as much variety in it as the planning applications process.
  • Not everything that’s missing is a show stopper. Keep cases flowing through the process wherever possible.
  • It is vital that those that do the work are allowed the space to think up their own solutions to problems, and have the backing and protection of managers to see things through. This leads to the best solutions, is good for morale and leads to ownership and commitment.

PAS improvement practice

This is a simple example of work we’ve been doing over the last 6 weeks at 10 councils focused on making a real difference in a short space of time. The PAS approach is rooted in the DM Challenge toolkit, and is about results – not spending 3 months doing a project, leaving weeks and weeks between sessions so that staff forget what it was they’re supposed to be doing, and then leaving behind a report. The work is condensed into 3 days over a fortnight. Our remit is; find out what the main problems are and why they are happening (day 1), help staff come up with the solutions (day 2), start implementing change (day 3).

The above example is just one part of a host of interventions and improvements identified at the council over the 3 days on site.

Will ‘new’ become ‘normal’?

It’s my suspicion that when the team have cleared the backlog, and review what has happened, that a few of the ‘new’ rules may become the ‘normal’ rules. I’ll be going back to get their reflections and update this blog then.

What do you think? Let me know, or if you want to know more about this work, contact me:


2 thoughts on “It’s ok to break the rules – re-thinking validation

  1. This is great. Work like this should be the norm, but anyone close to the administration of planning knows how rare it is to think and work in this way.

  2. Pingback: Simple principles for good planning – Planning Advisory Service

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s