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.


Designation crystal ball

UPDATE 17th August 2017 —–

The latest stats, advice and downloads are in our designation khub over here. I keep saying it, but councils need to pay attention to quality!





UPDATE 19th September 2016 —–

I’ve updated the designation crystal ball with the data published over the weekend (or very early this morning) from DCLG.

Again, I’ve just discarded the quarter of data that I don’t think will count towards designation so you can play “what if ?”. Some councils will be pleasantly surprised, others will not. There is at least one council that drops into the potential designation zone.

Lastly, anticipating the question “What is going to be the designation threshold for non-majors ?” we don’t know. Perhaps you can make a guess – there are 9 councils below 60% – does that feel about right ?

I have tried to publish this as a web document here




Just a quick post today. You’ll have noticed that the epic consultation document last week included a question about the level at which the new criteria for designation on non-majors should be set. [it suggests a range of between 60% and 70% to save you the legwork]

This, coupled with an estimate of when the new designation process will take place, allows councils to make a forecast of what their performance will be when designation for non-majors occurs.

To make life easy, I’ve put together a little spreadsheet that allows you to bring together the three sets of data

  1. The four published quarters of data from October 14 to Sept 15 (DCLG live tables)
  2. The quarter from Oct-Dec 15 that you already know about but isn’t published
  3. The three quarters from Jan – Sep 16 that you’ll need to forecast

Dealing with designation on majors is quite easy because there aren’t many of them. Dealing with designation on minors is not, and many councils at the bottom of table 153 are about to find out that they may have created an impossible mountain to climb. Too many cases, and too many applicants unprepared to enter into the EoT rigmarole.


Designation (oh, designation) that’s not what you need

In the olden days we had a standards regime. Back when I first joined local government it amounted to a “name and shame” process where the carrot was a financial reward (oh, those heady days of PDG) and the stick was to be on a list somewhere. The advice and support for a standards authority was mostly procedural. It focussed on streamlining process, thinking ahead on s106, minimising committee involvement and pruning the procedures manual.

It would be a mistake to treat designation as a warmed-up version of the standards regime. It is altogether more serious.


Roy Castle plays “Designation”

We’re starting to have the conversations with councils who may have been designated, and I’m finding it useful to anchor those conversations to three themes: Continue reading