Ombudsman the bogeyman?

Ombudsman cases: does the risk warrant the reaction?

We’re starting another round of support for councils struggling to process applications quickly enough. A lot of our support helps councils make their processes slicker. One of the most common things to slow a process down is having lots of checks and hand-offs built into it.  These build time and cost into the process and, counter-intuitively, often make it more vulnerable to error (the next person will pick up anything I miss).

Many hand-offs and checks are built-in after an error, omission or failure-to-do-something resulted in an ‘Ombudsman Case’ (usually a few years ago). The checks and hand-offs are normally applied ‘across the board’, with little regard for the type/variety of work in the system and therefore no real understanding of the risk that an ‘Ombudsman Case’ really represents.

How big is the risk?

So, does the time and cost of the checks and hand-offs justify the risk/probability of a case ending up in front of the ombudsman? I did a 5 minute bit of research. You can search the Local Government Ombudsman website so I looked for cases that involved ‘planning applications’ over a 2 year period (April 2014 – April 2016). The number was about 2,400 cases. If you consider that councils process around 600,000 planning applications a year then my Ombudsman cases represent about 0.6% of applications.

A colleague recently worked out that you can save around 2 days of time if you manage to shave 1 minute off of the processing time of every thousand applications you handle. Consider how many minutes (hours, days) are taken up by unnecessary checking, hand-offs, and cases sitting in the backs of queues. So if every council in England saved itself a minute by eliminating a hand-off the sector would buy itself around 3 years’ worth of extra time to deal with planning applications.

Once bitten thrice shy?

I understand why checks are introduced – no one wants the expense and bad publicity of an Ombudsman case. But does the risk really justify the approaches taken by some councils? I know of at least one council that checks that the right consultees have been consulted at least 3 times during the processing of an application.

Now you may say that it is because of the checks and hand-offs that the ombudsman cases are so low. But even if every ombudsman case was a planning case that would still only amount to 20,000 (more crude research) a year – a mere 3% of total planning cases processed.

My research was quick and crude and a bit of idle fun (I am sure someone closer to the subject than me will challenge the numbers), but I hope it will help all of us feel a bit more comfortable about abandoning a lot of the unnecessary checks and hand-offs we’ve managed to strangle our planning processes with.


“Framework Phooey”

When the NPPF was launched way back in March 2012, I was asked if I would play the role of ‘Rosemary the telephone operator’ and don a headset to answer some queries  (for anyone unfamiliar with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon canon,  Rosemary  is from the 70’s classic  ‘Hong Kong Phooey’). Naturally, I accepted.

As far as I am aware there’s not previously been a help-line set up to deal with queries on a new Government policy document. The intention was clear. Anticipate the cries of  ‘what does this all mean’ and provide instant access to information through dialogue – not through a sheet of answers to questions no-one was asking anyway. Continue reading

What you’ll get from our planning reform events – spoiler alert!

No matter how hard we try we will never be able to answer all of your questions about planning reform. We held a ‘dry run’ event this week to check that the presentations in our upcoming event series will meet audience expectations. The events are packed full of speakers with different perspectives on changes to the planning system. We’re contrasting the government line with challenging opinions and a good mix of people doing the work on the ground.

Despite my best efforts to balance breadth and depth of content, we still had feedback after the dry run requesting more information but warning us to keep to time. We won’t be able to cover every aspect of planning reform. The idea is that delegates will understand the implications of not having a plan in place and what they can do to ensure their plan is ‘up-to-date’. This event series is an update on what we know now with some hints and tips about how to prepare for the upcoming changes. Continue reading

PAS – past, present and future

As PAS enters its 7th year, I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve achieved, what we’ve learnt and what we need to do next.  It’s certainly been fun for me – but has this model – a nationally funded, local government improvement organisation for planning – worked for our funders and for you?

The fact that we’ve got further funding in this climate is a fairly explicit sign that Continue reading

Who is your editor-in-chief?

Over the last few years, in meetings and such I always introduce myself by saying ‘I look after the PAS website’. But after reading this excellent missive from Paul Ford I’ve decided that from now on I’m ‘Editor in Chief’ at PAS. Happy to plead guilty to possessing:

“…the willingness to schedule the living sh*t out of everything, the ability to see patterns, a total dedication to shipping, and willingness to say “no”…”

Continue reading

Survival skills for planners

I heard Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralization speak earlier this week and while its clearly it’s all change again on Planet Planning, he was enthusiastic (he said) about planners taking on a more facilitative role in making sure that the development  investment delivered the place that communities want.  Unpicking development plans and reinventing them to weight neighbourhood desires more heavily is one thing, but he was also talking about collaborative working between local authorities and communities to enable and encourage development investment in the right stuff to meet the whole range of goals.

He talked about the negativity of adversarial development control  (my words would be squashing the ability of planning to innovate and problem solve) and the need to look at and persuade the community to look at  development differently.   While the Minister wasn’t giving away much detail – I was busy filling in the gaps with a description of development management!

 We have been talking up this approach for three years now.  The supported learning groups that POS have facilitated been wildly encouraged or deeply frustrated at the difficulty of changing attitudes, sometimes in equal measure and sometimes both at the same time.  But over the whole country, I have been interested to know what the pace of change has been. 

 PAS recently commissioned a survey to find out whether Councils had changed their practices to take on development management  ways of working.   DM was never intended to be a one size fits all approach,  but we used a few practices to indicate aspects of a transformation. The result is a half full glass: Continue reading

New on the PAS website: simple events form / does this help?

A quick post to let you know about two new bits that went live on the PAS website today.

Does this help?

You can stare at page impression and visitor data until you are blue in the face and you still won’t know whether a new addition to the website is any good. And for qualitative data the annual website survey never rolls around fast enough for a timely reponse. 

With that in mind we’ve taken on some work being done by LG Improvement and Development and implemented a new voting pod. It asks for a yes or no to  the question “Was this page helpful?” It also has space for you to offer some comment.

Take a look and remember: vote early and vote often.

Signing up

Whilst piggy-backing on other people’s projects is all good fun, sometimes it doesn’t work.  Our events form was a bloated mess of multiple pages and purchase order numbers that didn’t suit our free events. Looking at our stats showed alarming rates of attrition between the various pages, too.

We’ve now replaced it with a single, simple page that has only the information we need.  Hopefully that makes things less of a hassle for people when our next series of events comes around.

Lessons so far – Managing Excellent Planning Services (MEPS)

MEPS is 10 months old now and we have 7 benchmarking groups made up of 30 authorities. As expected, this project gets more and more interesting as we add more sets of data into it. Its early days – I am not quite ready to share individual authorities’ improvement stories, but I can start sharing what we are learning about the planning beast more generally. Some of it confirms things we know, some makes us question some of the ‘received wisdom’ about what improves planning services, and other bits are frankly, leaving us scratching our heads… Continue reading

This Abstract String Of Words Is Important

I’m back at work after a few weeks away and in the thick of editing stuff in preparation for our email bulletin that goes out this week.  It’s good to have a break and come back to this stuff with fresh eyes. The two docs I’ve gone through so far were chock of full of my favourite Excessive Capitalisation of Important Words.

Rather than just cursing my pedantry it occurred to me that the unnecessary capitalisation was a red flag for jargon. The capitalised words were all ones that planners either think is important or they have some kind of special meaning for them so they elevate it to proper noun status.

We’ve all got a responsibility to make our documents accessible and in plain English.  I’ll accept it’s sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees. But next time you’re looking through one of your planning documents take a look at what you’ve given a capital letter to and ask yourself – is this word so special that the punter out there is going to understand what we mean?