Tips on managing Development Management Performance

This section gives 12 tips on keeping on top of Development Management performance. It is aimed primarily at Development Management managers including: Heads of Planning, Heads of Development Management and Development Management team managers. It can be used as a checklist to investigate why Development Management performance may be slipping and deciding where improvements might need to be made.

1. Make sure you have the right information

Suggested performance reports include:

•   Number and percentage of Majors and non Majors determined in time over month, quarterly, yearly and two yearly period
•   Number and percentage of Majors and non Majors out of time
•   Number of applications outstanding and with extension of times / Planning Performance Agreements
•   Caseload per officer and by application type
•   Average days to validate applications
•   Forward programme of possible Planning Committee items
•   Number of current planning appeals and status of each appeal

2. Make sure the information is up to date and is seen by the right people

Consider generating weekly and monthly reports
Decide who needs to see what information.  Suggest:
      Head of Planning (or equivalent) sees high level stats only
      Head of Development Management (or equivalent) sees detailed stats at team level
      Team leaders see detailed stats down to officer level
      Case officers see their own stats and detailed stats at team level
Discuss performance regularly at Development Management Service level and team level

3. Make sure everyone understands the role of the case officer

The case officer should be the convener for all aspects of their planning applications who remains responsible for the application throughout and ensures there are no surprises
The manager needs to be clear with the case officer the level of input they want in an application.  The manager should have regular case reviews and flag up when others may need to be involved.  This should also take place before a draft decision has been reached by the case officer
Never promise an applicant something you can’t deliver – it is very dangerous to say “I’m sure it will be fine” before you have received consultation responses
The applicant must be clear that the case officer makes the decision rather than a consultee – the case officer should always front up discussions between the applicant and objector
If a manager changes a case officer recommendation at the last minute think about the impression that gives to the applicant or local resident of the Planning Dept and the case officer.  How can it be better managed?
Trust and relationships between the case officer and the applicant should never be undermined by the intervention of others

4. Make sure everyone sings from the same song sheet

Consider having a set of process notes and manual for Development Management so that everyone works in the same way
The manual can change whenever it needs to with the help of all the staff. It needs to be an essential daily reference point that all DM staff instantly go to for help
Consider giving individual officers responsibility for sections of the DM Manual so there is a sense of ownership and relevance
Don’t let “we have always done it this way” stop changes being made
Don’t tolerate staff having their own manuals or own way of doing things.  If they have good ideas then they can help improve practice for everyone.

5. Make dynamic changes when they are needed

Take action when things go wrong based on the information provided and feedback.  Have regular management discussions involving the right people
React promptly to changes in legislation, national practice guidance etc and make changes relevant to your particular circumstances
Don’t let bad practice continue unchallenged
Small incremental changes can sometimes have a big impact on performance. Failure to make these incremental changes can lead to a downward spiral
Listen to your staff to understand the problems and let them suggest the solutions – they are the ones who are doing the job every day

6. Praise good performance, challenge poor performance

Use the detailed performance information in regular one to ones
Praise staff when they are doing well and make sure staff know that managers know they are doing a good job
Challenge why individual performance has dropped and support staff to improve.  Don’t leave this to the annual appraisal, review at least monthly.
Ensure that there is a culture of performance and that performance matters to staff
Share stats with staff, managers and members and discuss it regularly.  Celebrate success, address poor performance
Ensure staff understand what needs to happen when performance falls

7. Monitor caseloads

Provide regular reports on caseloads per officer
Make sure it is divided up by application type as well as overall numbers.  Numbers are fairly meaningless without understanding the workload involved
Include applications determined as well as applications outstanding so that output as well as input is monitored
Discuss caseloads regularly with staff to manage numbers
Support and challenge staff with their applications.  Help them to make good timely decisions but don’t do the work for them
Understand what is a reasonable caseload and what actions need to be taken when caseloads exceed a tolerable level e.g. redistribution of cases, help individuals with cases, bring in temporary support etc
Make sure case officers see actions taking place when issues are identified

8. Ensure you understand the importance of the officer report

Think about the time you need to spend on an officer report.  A householder report with no objections and an approval is unlikely to be read by anyone except the case officer and manager so why spend a lot of time on it?  A controversial report for a Major application recommended for refusal at Planning Committee will be read in detail by a lot of people and will form the basis of an appeal statement so it must be detailed and correct
Beware of cut and paste.  It is good to be consistent with similar decisions but each application is different
Officer reports are read by the public and they are usually not Planning experts so write them as such e.g. explain acronyms, use Plain English, avoid Planning jargon
Poor grammar and spelling really does matter particularly for Planning Committee reports as it affects the credibility of the professional Planner
Don’t just blandly include standard paragraphs without thinking about what you are writing e.g. a sentence about the Equality Act will be there for a reason

9. Communicate with the customer

Do the simple things properly e.g. return phone calls / emails – no excuses
Get on the front foot with applicants.  Case officer to introduce themselves at the start of the application to gain a business relationship and repour
Remember the customer is more than just the applicant, it is all stakeholders in a planning decision
Don’t be afraid to give bad news on timescales and issues.  Most people will understand, it is the lack of communication that frustrates people.
Work with your applicants through local agents and developer forums.  A positive relationship can significantly help communication but a poor relationship can undermine the work of officers.  NEVER discuss individual cases or case officers in an open forum.
Think out of the box to break down barriers – what is the best way to communicate and improve relationships?

10. Involve Members in performance discussions

Ensure the right Members understand the importance of performance
Ensure Planning Committee owns performance and the possible consequences of decisions they make
Include performance in Member training
Include lessons learnt as part of the Planning Committee agenda e.g. reporting on appeal results and identify what went well or wrong

11. Learn from experience

Celebrate success and use it as best practice.  Examples:
       An appeal win could mean the correct interpretation of a Local Plan policy
      Good customer feedback could mean that a new DM practice is popular with customers
      Good monthly performance could mean that a new DM improvement tool is working
Use poor feedback as an opportunity.  What can be learnt from something that has not gone well.  Examples:
      A lost appeal could require the rethinking of the use of a Local Plan policy
      A DM practice may need to be reviewed following poor customer feedback
      Poor monthly performance may need addressing early to avoid longer term poor performance

12. Learn from others

Don’t “re-invent the wheel” 
There is always good practice in other LPAs so speak to others
Don’t be afraid to copy good practice from other LPAs – they will not mind, in fact they will be proud
 Use networks to find out what others are doing e.g. DM regional groups