Critically consider the health of your Development Management service to kickstart your improvement plan
“We have been working with PAS as we needed to understand why our performance was dipping and to take positive action. The toolkit really helped us to focus on the areas that needed to be looked at and gave us some very helpful top tips” (Roger Clotworthy, Service Lead - City Development, Exeter City Council)
“Portsmouth City Council was looking at the toolkit to help us understand what we were doing well and where improvements were needed within our DM processes. After being contacted by DLUHC over one element of performance the DM toolkit, and direct assistance from PAS, gave us an excellent framework to work through and we now have some very clear actions to help us improve the service we provide” (Ian Maguire, Assistant Director, Planning and Economic Growth, Portsmouth City Council)
The 2023 version of the PAS Development Management Challenge Toolkit updates the 2021 version taking into account feedback from councils who have used the toolkit and best practice that we have found in our travels around the country. It aims to provide a ‘health check’ for Planning Authorities and act as a simple way to develop an action plan for improvements to their Development Management service.
Each section is designed to stand alone and there is no preferred order for running through each section. Therefore, you can tailor your sessions to how they best meet the priorities for improvement in your own Development Management Service. Some themes will reappear in different sections to help you cover as many topics as you need. For example, the speed of decision-making is raised in three separate sections – Performance Management, Political Leadership and Considering an Application – therefore the discussion can take place when any of those sections are being considered.
The format in each section is for you to consider statements defining what an excellent and poor Planning Authority looks like and then to consider some tips to improve performance. The purpose of defining poor and excellent is to be controversial and to stimulate debate within a Council. The tips will work for some Councils and not for others because every Council is different and therefore has different priorities for improvement. The tips are also aimed at getting Planning Authorities to think about solutions and to work through challenges in bite-size ways rather than being overwhelmed by the problems they face.
Is there a cost?
The toolkit is free to download and councils are welcome to use it themselves. Sometimes it is more effective to have someone external lead the process to prevent it from becoming perceived to be the performance management of individuals. We have several experienced consultants who can facilitate sessions for you. We may ask you to pay for this, but we also facilitate sessions for free if your council is covered under grant assistance due to poor performance on speed or quality of decision-making.
How to use it
For each part discuss where you feel your Council sits on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). If you disagree with one another (which you may do) discuss why you have different views as perception is a really important factor in improving how things are done. Ultimately the final score is not as important as what you are going to do about it. However, it is really important to write down why you have either agreed on a score or why you can’t decide on a score. This will help you to understand where you are as a service on the journey between poor and excellent and if you don’t write it down you will have no record of why you came to those conclusions.
Next, decide what score you would like to be. It may seem obvious that you always will want to be a 5 (excellent) but this is not always the case as it depends on where you want to focus your priorities as a service. For example, how important is monitoring performance to your service? All Planning Authorities will want to monitor the speed and quality of decision-making as these are the minimum benchmarks set by Government but you will then need to balance the time spent in collecting information about all areas of the Development Management process against the staff resources you have to deliver an excellent service. Only you will know whether you want to reach a 5 or whether you may be happy to be a 3 or 4. We suggest you note down the reasons why you may not want to score a 5 at this time as this will help you prioritise your actions in any improvement plan.
Finally, look at the ‘top tips’ and actions you want to take from the session. Which tips are you going to take on board and which are you going to dismiss? – it is ok to say a tip is not for you as long as you know why. Then if you decide you want to take forward a tip decide how you are going to implement it. Some you simply need to do and others may involve outside support such as from PAS. Also, consider what other actions have come out of the discussion. Encourage all staff taking part in the session to generate other ideas and actions to help you develop an action plan.
Each section of the toolkit usually takes about an hour to an hour and a half to complete. However, the time you spend on each section very much depends on how much discussion and disagreement takes place – it will sometimes be shorter and sometimes longer. Also, some sections are longer than others so there will inevitably be a difference in time spent on each.
When you have completed the sections that you feel are important to your service you should be in an excellent position to prepare your own action plan of improvement in the format that is appropriate for your organisation. However, it is also really important to use the toolkit to reflect back on the things you are doing well and therefore do not need to change. Do not simply dwell on the negatives but celebrate success and promote best practice within your service. It is really important when Planning Departments are struggling with resourcing and workload pressures to celebrate with staff good practice and a job well done.
We have learned that no process is ever “fixed” and every Council has room to improve further. Let us know how you get on, and how this toolkit has helped. But before you begin here is some crucial advice we have taken from the most successful councils:
- In many projects there is a big gap between “the big idea” and the subsequent HR process of changing job descriptions and organisational structures. This gap can be reduced by involving the affected people in the redesign, and not treating it as part of the ongoing day job.
- No Development Management process works completely independently from another – they are all interlinked in some way to ensure that you provide a sound, customer-friendly and timely service. It is essential that everyone understands how the department works as a whole. Silo working, narrow targets and work being batched into self-contained activities is poison to a process.
- It is impossible to design out all errors. Almost every part of the Development Management process requires an assessment of risk and proportionality, and councils are often guilty of introducing extra sign-offs and double-checks after some kind of mistake. You need to find a corporate culture that understands (and forgives) the occasional error.
- We encourage councils to be bold and innovative, and you will find some challenges in the toolkit that encourage change in the way you are used to doing things. This needs to be balanced against the support needs of the people who work for you. If you make changes too quickly and without bringing staff on board with the changes you might expose gaps in skills or confidence. You will need to acknowledge your staff as individuals and make judgements about how fast each is able to adapt.
- There is no “one size fits all” approach for Development Management as every council has different structures, issues and priorities. Don’t be afraid to say an approach we suggest is not right for you. However, it is really important for you to agree why it is not right for you.
Who is it for?
The toolkit is designed to help councils think properly and run a ‘health check’ of their service before taking on change and improvement work, whatever their circumstances or whatever is providing the stimulus for change. It is up to each Council to decide who leads on each section of the toolkit but there is a suggestion made at the beginning of each section on how the session should be run. It should always involve a range of staff who can make the changes happen and should always include staff at all levels of the service. It is unlikely to be effective if it is simply used by senior management who impose changes on staff. Equally, it is unlikely to be effective if it is only used by officers who have no power to make changes. It should be discussed with as many staff as is practicable so that changes can be made from an informed position by people who understand their business. You may find it helpful to have an external facilitator, such as PAS, to help you discuss the issues that the toolkit raises, but equally, you may want to nominate a member of your own staff to act as the facilitator. It will be particularly useful for:
Authorities designated/in danger of designation
- Helps to identify why performance has slipped and what needs to be done to put performance back on track.
- Councils that are designated or under threat of designation may be asked by the Government to prepare an improvement plan and the toolkit will give you a strong basis for developing that improvement plan
- Helps with staff morale to recognise the areas of the service that are being run well
Councils that need to make changes due to budget cuts and / or staff restructuring
- Helps councils differentiate the "must do" vs “nice to have"
- Focuses on the big picture and maximising income/reducing cost
- Guards against complacency and can provide a stimulus to ‘shake things up’ every now and again involving officers & councillors
- A regular review helps keep things lean
- Complementing the cycle of learning, and keeping staff engaged and empowered to identify and effect change and improvement
- Reinforcing and understanding the culture / purpose of the service
Authorities that need specific support
- Enables Councils to focus on specific areas of their Development Management service where they are aware that improvement is needed but want help in identifying how that improvement can be made
Groups of councils preparing to collaborate e.g. through Local Government reorganisation
- If councils are going to share or merge services it is important to understand where there is best practice that can be duplicated elsewhere and where new approaches need to be adopted.
- It helps to acknowledge, share and celebrate best practice
When to use the Toolkit
There are no hard-and-fast rules about using the Toolkit; it can be used as a sense-check or critical review for current ongoing improvement work, or as a means to stimulate thought and ideas to kick-start a new programme of change and improvement. It will work best where it is used as a ‘continuous improvement’ tool rather than for ‘one-off’ projects, and when used to engage staff and other stakeholders in the design of improvements rather than imposing it upon them.
Feedback suggests that councils intend to use the Toolkit as part of:
A Development Management process review – where a council may be responding to poor performance and wants to understand what actions need to be included in an improvement plan. In these cases, PAS can often provide support through its grant programme.
Shared services / reorganisation – where there is significant change taking place in the council that will necessitate a different approach for the way the Planning service will operate in the future. The toolkit can then form part of a much wider change process.
Regular team meetings – working through the various sections in a priority order that makes best sense for the Council or concentrating on known problem areas.
Team ‘away-days’ – many councils will take their team away for a day to plan changes and improvements and the Toolkit can provide a useful focus and structure.
Councillor engagement – the Toolkit has a specific section on political leadership and covers the councillor role at each stage of the DM process (not just the committee).
The DM Challenge Toolkit documents (to download)
Download the DM Toolkit documents here:
Training on the toolkit
PAS has held training sessions on the toolkit, most recently at the PAS Chief Planners and Rising Stars Conference on 14th July 2022. The presentations give an introduction to the toolkit, a worked example (2021 version of the toolkit) and first hand experiences of using the toolkit from Epsom and Ewell, Uttlesford and South Hams / West Devon