Making the planning system more customer-friendly

By Donna Gardiner

Local authority planning departments are more often associated with bureaucracy than with delivering good quality customer service.

However, as the current reform of the planning system in Scotland puts the need to develop a modern, efficient service in the spotlight, thoughts have turned to how planning authorities can focus on the human side of delivering a good quality planning service.

Last month (August 2018), the Scottish Government published a report on customer service in the planning system.  It examined different approaches to customer service across a range of private and public sector organisations in Scotland, with a view to identifying the lessons from these that could be applied to the planning system. Although focused on Scotland, the lessons are transferable elsewhere.

A number of challenges

The research found that while planning authorities in Scotland viewed high quality customer service as highly important, they faced a number of challenges to delivering this in practice.

Limited staff and financial resources are a key constraint affecting planning authorities’ ability to deliver high quality customer service.  For example, customer expectations of the frequency and responsiveness of communication are often higher than what can reasonably be delivered.

There are also issues of inconsistency of service, both within and between local authorities in Scotland.  This is due in part to different interpretations of specific legislation, as well as different levels of investment in, and commitment to, customer service within individual planning authorities.

The risk of individuals confounding ‘customer service’ and ‘outcomes’ – where the planning decision reached affects the individual’s perception of the quality of service they have received – is another key challenge when measuring the customer experience.

Current approaches

Each year, planning authorities in Scotland must prepare an annual Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report, which details their performance over the previous year.

At present, the PPF has no specific measure of customer service delivery.  Instead, planning authorities must submit a ‘narrative commentary’ of their customer service performance, along with relevant case studies that demonstrate their actions.

This means that individual planning authorities decide how best to gather information about their own customer service performance.  Some of the key methods used include:

  • Customer charters – which communicate customer service commitments to customers and employees
  • Customer satisfaction surveys – mainly online, however, some were still postal
  • Forums – the use of customer forums or focus groups to engage with customers
  • Complaint handling procedures – published details of organisational systems, protocols and SLAs for registering and responding to complaints
  • Customer service standard accreditation – g. Customer Service Excellence (CSE), Investors in People (IiP), ISO9001, Customer Satisfaction Measurement Tool (CSMT) etc.

So what can be done? The benefits of e-planning

The report identified a number of ways in which customer service within the planning system could be improved.

First was the need to achieve a greater consistency of processes, enforcement and quality of service across Scotland.  Clearer national guidance on implementing legislation would go some way to achieve this. Establishing a national survey of customer service in the planning system is also a priority. Lessons could be learned from the building standards system, which currently incorporates a Key Performance Outcome relating to improving the customer experience.

Planning authorities also overwhelmingly believed that e-planning had improved customer service.  The benefits included:

  • more efficient information flows
  • better prioritisation of work
  • reduced printing costs
  • greater transparency
  • easier access to information by the public

What is clear is that the move to e-planning is bringing a ‘culture change’. By speeding up the planning process and making more efficient use of resources, e-planning frees up both time and money to be spent elsewhere in the planning process.  As one planning authority notes:

“It’s about how you work with the customer to bring them on the e-planning journey with you and change their mindset. In the long run the customer benefits because it speeds up the service.”

As technology and customer expectations evolve it will be important that e-planning solutions reflect this in the future.

Future directions

Good quality customer service helps to make the planning system easier to understand and processes more accessible and usable.  This in turn opens up the system to those who might otherwise feel that it is too complex or time consuming to participate.  This may be of particular importance when encouraging young people to become involved in consultations.

Improving customer service within the planning system is not something that is just ‘nice to have’. Planning has changed significantly over the years – and with change comes the need for reliable, cost-effective processes to drive end-to-end efficiency.


For 30 years, Idox has been supporting the work of local government planning departments. iApply, a planning application submission portal launched by the Idox Group in 2015, offers local authorities the opportunity to benefit from an out-of-the-box end-to-end digital solution that makes submitting planning, building and licence applications simple for customers and cost effective for the authority.

The Town Meeting: the award-winning planning engagement project, one year on

Scene from the "Town Meeting"

Scene from the “Town Meeting”

In this guest blog post, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle reflects on an exciting year for the Town Meeting project, which uses theatre to engage communities in planning.

It’s now a year since we started the Town Meeting project and 7 months since the project won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement at the 2015 RTPI Research Excellence awards.

The Town Meeting uses theatre as a way of co-producing research into public participation in planning with communities themselves. The Town Meeting has been performed in 12 communities across the north of England. The use of theatre in this way is unique and has engaged audiences in the issues in a way that traditional forms of research cannot. If you are interested to find out more about the project and the play, we have written a blog about it here and produced a ‘behind the scenes’ podcast about the development process here.

The impacts of the RTPI award

One of the major impacts of winning the award has been to develop the credibility of the project with both professionals and funders. The initial phase of the research was all about understanding the issues in more detail. We’ve now had a chance to do that and the second phase of the project has been to try to change planning practice to address some of the concerns raised by the participants in the project.

To undertake this new phase of the project we have been fortunate to get funding from the ESRC Impact Accelerator Account scheme and Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal. Having the research recognised by a professional body, the RTPI, through the Research Excellence Awards was invaluable in making the case for further funding.

The new phase of the project aims to take the lessons learnt from the play and turn that into a tool which planners can use to co-produce knowledge which can inform strategic planning.

Bringing planning and health together

So far we have worked with health professionals and planners to explore how planning and health can be reunited. In the workshop, health professionals and planners were presented with a proposal to build a super-casino in a run-down seaside town. The play provided a forum for the planners and health professionals to discuss the wider implications of development proposals in a new way.

The event highlighted the lack of understanding that health professionals have of the planning system. It’s often felt that planning can be the solution to many problems but it has been clear from the project how little citizens and professionals alike understand the process of planning and its limitations.

Collaborative planning

We are now about to start working with Northumberland National Park Authority to assist in the development of their new local plan. Through a new version of the play it is hoped communities can understand the importance of the local plan in framing any later planning decision that may affect them.

Previous performances of the play and discussions with audiences have made it clear people only get involved in planning issues at the point when it’s often too late to have any meaningful impact on that decision. The paradox is that at the point at which they can make a meaningful difference, the preparation of the local plan, it is often difficult for communities to see the relevance to them.

Using a play as a tool in collaborative planning can therefore turn the abstract process of preparing a local plan into something meaningful by showing how it has a direct impact on later planning decisions which may affect them greatly. The play also allows the community the freedom to create a vision for their local area, in this case the National Park.

Gaining the trust of planners from the National Park was helped greatly by the award. There is a degree of risk on their part in taking on this untested, and some may say frivolous, method of plan production. The award has given the planners the confidence to take that risk.

We are hopeful that the next year will lead to some concrete outcomes for the project, and to the play making a meaningful difference to the way communities and planners co-produce knowledge about places that matter to them.

Final thoughts

At a recent performance of the play in Cockermouth, the ‘Blennerhasset Village Parliament’ was mentioned. I had not heard of this and asking around the department, neither had any of my colleagues. Started in 1866 as a way involving the whole population in the governance of the community, the village parliament was an example of community governance in the 19th Century.

It was a reminder that sometimes we think we are being innovative when in fact we are merely repeating history – and of the fundamental value of engaging people in the process of research.


Dr Paul Cowie is a Research Assistant in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Newcastle. Paul’s research focuses on community planning and community representation in the planning process. In 2015, Paul and his project The Town Meeting won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement at the RTPI Awards for Research Excellence.

This year, the Idox Information Service will again be sponsoring the RTPI Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, as well as the Student and Planning Consultancy Awards.

The closing date for applications to the awards is 31 May 2016. Further information and application forms are available here.

Top 5 crowdsourcing initiatives in government: better engagement with citizens

By Steven McGinty

The first mention of ‘crowdsourcing’ was in 2006 by Jeff Howe, in an article in Wired magazine. His article highlighted the basic premise that technology has enabled us to ‘source’ ideas, labour, and opinions from a potentially large group of people.

Initially used in business, the idea of crowdsourcing has now been applied in government and in a policy context. And although involving people in government is not a new idea, innovative technologies have reduced costs and increased the reach of traditional participation methods, such as town hall meetings. Vili Lehdonvirta and Jonathan Bright, academics at the Oxford Internet Institute, suggest that the unique ability to source a large pool of opinions or ideas has a quality of its own.

With the growing demand for greater transparency and democratic participation, and an increasingly tech savvy population, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will become more prevalent in public decision-making. For that reason, I’ve decided to highlight some of the most interesting examples of government crowdsourcing platforms.

Our MK

Our MK is an online citizen engagement platform, which is part of MK: Smart – a collaborative initiative to turn Milton Keynes into a “Smart City”. The Open University, a major partner in the initiative, explains that smart cities participate in “ICT-led urban innovation that addresses sustainability issues”. The Our MK project enables the local community to put forward their ideas, start their own sustainability projects, and volunteer for projects that already exist, such as the Food Waste Juice Bar or the Breastfeeding Hub App. Overall, the scheme has been a success, with thousands of citizens innovating, collaborating, and building projects.

Better Reykjavik

Better Reykjavik is an online platform that has been developed to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. It enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections; providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Since its introduction, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent 1.9 million euros on developing projects sourced from citizens.

Citizens’ Initiative Act

In 2012, the Finnish government introduced the Citizens’ Initiative Act, with the purpose of increasing participation of the under 40’s – a demographic where less than half chose to vote in elections. It enshrines into Finnish law a mechanism for allowing citizens to have their say in the legislation debated in parliament. However, before an initiative can progress, a minimum of 50,000 statements of support need to be gathered from voting age Finnish citizens.

From a technical perspective, citizens have been crowdsourced using open source software designed by the Open Ministry, a non-profit organization based in Helsinki, Finland.

The initiative has been used to gather views on a number of issues, including the first equal marriage law in 2014 (where citizens were involved in collecting signatures as well as drafting legislation), and in 2013 the off-road traffic law reform (which focuses on where and how fast snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles can be ridden).

Future Melbourne

Future Melbourne is an interesting project by the City of Melbourne Council, which asks its citizens to help write the city plan. The wiki (a website which allows collaboration), which was launched in 2008, encourages citizens to share ideas and to edit the content of the Future Melbourne draft plan. Tietoja Minusta, a Finnish academic, suggests that this was possibly the first online community consultation that focused on large-scale city planning.

The project has now moved into a new phase with the latest iteration, Future Melbourne 2026. Some of the key issues up for discussion include facilities for the homeless, the use of arts to promote equity and inclusion, and smarter public transport.

Simplicity

In 2011, New York City launched ‘Simplicity’, an internal crowdsourcing project to harness the knowledge and experience of its employees to improve efficiency. The city used a social networking platform provided by Spigit – a tech company specialising in these types of tools. During the test phase of the project, a number of suggestions were made, including a web-based portal for items made redundant by other agencies, and a web-based help desk for employees looking to contact other employees with a particular expertise.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the many crowdsourcing initiatives introduced by governments, and although there has been some debate about their effectiveness, it’s clear that they tap into wider popular trends, such as the sharing economy. Whether it’s citizens having their say in city planning or having their questions read out in Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s likely that crowdsourcing will continue to play a role in government.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on digital issues.

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

community sign

by Laura Dobie

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was finally passed by the Scottish Parliament after a debate and vote late on Wednesday evening. In this article we look at the background to the Bill, the reforms that it proposes and its potential to strengthen community planning.

Background

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 11th June 2014, and the Stage 2 debate took place in March 2015. The Bill has its origins in the 2011 Scottish National Party election manifesto (where it was referred to as the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill). This was followed by two Scottish Government consultations. The Bill is part of a broader programme for public service reform in Scotland which was introduced by the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, which stressed the need to ensure that public services are built around people and communities.

The Bill sets out reforms in areas including community planning, community right to buy land, involving communities in the delivery of public services and the acquisition of public assets by communities.

Community planning provisions

The Bill gives community planning partnerships (CPPs) a statutory basis and extends the range of public bodies which are defined as community planning partners beyond those set out in the 2003 Local Government in Scotland Act, which introduced community planning. It sets out a legal obligation for local authorities and their partners to participate with each other and to participate with any community bodies which the partnership considers likely to be able to contribute to community planning.

There is a particular focus on involving organisations which represent disadvantaged groups, and CPPs are required to “act with a view to reducing inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage unless the partnership considers that it would be inappropriate to do so.”

CPPs are also required to prepare and publish a local outcomes improvement plan and to review whether they are making progress in achieving these outcomes. They must also publish progress reports for each reporting year.

Will the reforms strengthen community planning?

A number of reports have been critical of community planning since its inception, in particular with respect to its involvement of, and impact on, local communities. The Christie Commission highlighted “variations in the effectiveness of community planning partnerships,” while an Audit Scotland report found that barriers such as the lack of a clear accountability framework have prevented CPPs from operating as intended. It argued that all community planning partners need to work together to address these barriers.

A SPICe briefing on the Bill noted that “putting community planning on a statutory basis, and requiring participation from all partners, not just local authorities, has long been considered a way in which community planning could be improved.” The general duty on all partners to participate, and specific responsibilities conferred on some partners to ensure the efficient and effective operation of the partnerships, may help to address some of the previous shortcomings of CPPs.

However, the Local Government and Regeneration Committee does not consider that a statutory duty is sufficient to ensure the effective participation of all public bodies in community planning. Some stakeholders have also highlighted issues with how outcomes will be selected and prioritised by CPPs, while others have voiced concerns that the process will remain top down, and will not give communities much of an opportunity to contribute to determining outcomes.

While the proposed reforms place clear responsibilities on CPPs to involve relevant bodies in community planning, and contain provisions which aim to address previous problems with CPPs, we will need to see how they are applied in practice in order to determine whether they will bring about improvements in community planning, and ultimately lead to improved outcomes for communities.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on community planning. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

Changing gear (Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill), IN Holyrood, No 327 10 Nov 2014, pp35-36

Empowering communities: putting people at the heart of their place, IN Scottish Planner, No 159 Sep 2014, pp4-5

Improving community planning in Scotland

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Neighbourhood planning – the current state of play

communitygroup

By Alan Gillies

Following the May 2015 General Election, the only Conservative minister to be replaced in the resulting cabinet reshuffle was Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The appointment in his place of Greg Clark, dubbed “the architect of localism” and the person who “invented neighbourhood planning”, reinforces the government’s commitment to the neighbourhood planning system. Just a few weeks later the Queen’s speech confirmed that there would be legislation with provisions “to simplify and speed up the neighbourhood planning system, to support communities that seek to meet local housing and other development needs through neighbourhood planning”.

The Localism Act 2011

The neighbourhood planning system was introduced by the Localism Act in 2011. At that time Greg Clark was the minster responsible for the legislation’s passage through Parliament. He described it then as “as a powerful option [for communities] to come together and decide, collectively, what their neighbourhood should look like in future; where new shops and offices should go; and which green spaces are most important to the community.” (Clark, 2011)

The Act gives residents and businesses in a neighbourhood the option to do two things: create a neighbourhood development plan for their area; propose that a particular development or sort of development should automatically get planning permission in their area (neighbourhood development order/community right to build order). Neighbourhood plans must be subject to a public consultation period, expert examination and a local referendum. But once passed at referendum, local planning authorities are required to adopt the plan and give it weight, along with the local plan and national planning policy, in determining planning applications.

Progress so far

Earlier this year the government celebrated the milestone of fifty neighbourhood development plans passing the referendum stage. However, the fifty or so plans already approved are just the tip of the iceberg. In total around 1,400 communities are now involved at one stage or another in the formal neighbourhood planning process.  6.1 million people in England live in a designated ‘neighbourhood area’ (i.e. one formally designated as an area to be covered by a neighbourhood plan) – representing around 11% of the population. But, of course, that still means that 89% of the population is not yet involved.

Going forward

Whether this level of activity can be regarded as satisfactory progress and evidence of a real public appetite for neighbourhood planning depends on your point of view. But either way, the neighbourhood planning process represents a new mechanism for involving and empowering more people in the difficult decisions that the planning system has always faced – which can surely only be a good thing for those who become involved. And with the new government reiterating its importance, and a new minister in place who sees it as fundamental to localism, neighbourhood planning is here to stay.

The challenge, and legal requirement, for planners is to provide support to neighbourhoods to become involved.

References

Clark, Greg. A licence to innovate, IN MJ magazine, 17 Nov 2011, p15


 

If you are interested in research, opinion and comment on planning, we have launched a special subscription offer to the Idox Information Service for RTPI Members.

As well as access to our database and current awareness service, members receive special briefings on key topics. Recent briefings for members have covered:

 

Smart cities … treading the line between the possible, the probable and the desirable

By Morwen Johnson

Sometimes it feels like every city in the world is now claiming to be ‘smart’. Our research team regularly add new reports on the topic to our database. And with a policy agenda riding on the back of a multi-billion pound global industry, the positivist rhetoric around smart cities can seem overwhelming.

We’ve blogged before about the disconnect between what surveys suggest the public values in terms of quality of life in urban areas, and what smart cities are investing in. And last week I attended a conference in Glasgow ‘Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges’ which refreshingly brought together a multi-disciplinary audience to look at smart cities in a more critical light.

The conference was rich and wide-ranging – too broad for me to try and summarise the discussions. Instead here are some reflections on the challenges which need to be explored.

Every smart city is a surveillance city

Look in any smart city prospectus or funding announcement and you’ll find mention of how data will be ‘managed’, ‘captured’, ‘monitored’, ‘shared’, ‘analysed’, ‘aggregated’, ‘interrogated’ etc. And this is inevitably presented as a benign activity happening for the common good, improving efficiency, saving money and making life better.

As David Murakami Wood pointed out at the conference however, this means that every smart city is by necessity a surveillance city – even if policymakers and stakeholders are reluctant to admit this.

Public debate is failing to keep up with the pace of change

Even for someone who takes a keen interest in urbanism and the built environment, any description of smart cities can risk leaving you feeling like a techno-illiterate dinosaur. It’s clear that there is also a huge amount of hype around the construction (or retrofitting) of smart cities – with vested interests keen to promote a positive message.

Do we really understand the possibilities being opened up when we embed technology in our urban infrastructure? And more importantly, what are the ethical questions raised around sharing and exploiting data? The pace of the development and rollout of new technologies within our urban environments seems to be running ahead of the desirable cycle of reflection and critique.

An interesting point was also made about language – and whether experts, technologists and policymakers need to adjust their use of language and jargon, in order for discussion about smart cities to be inclusive. Ubicomp … augmented reality … the Internet of Things … even the Cloud – how can the public give informed consent to participating in the smart city if the language used obscures and obfuscates what is happening with their data?

Where can we have a voice in the data city?

Following on from this point, cities are not ends in themselves – to be successful they must serve the interests and needs of the people who live, work and visit them. An interesting strand of the conference discussion considered what a bottom-up approach to smart cities would look like.

Alison Powell highlighted that there’s been a shift from seeing people as citizens to treating them as ‘citizen consumers’ – I’d add that within the built environment, this goes hand-in-hand with the commercialisation and privatisation of public space – and this has profound implications around questions of inclusion/exclusion. And also where power and decision-making sits – and who is profiting.

Although some general examples of community participation projects were mentioned during the conference, these didn’t seem to address the question of how ‘people’ can engage with smart cities. Not as problems to be managed or controlled – or as passive suppliers of data to sensors – but as creative and active participants.

Conclusion

I left the conference wondering where society is heading and how we, the Knowledge Exchange, can support our members in local government and the third sector to understand the extensive opportunities and implications of smart cities. We see a key part of our mission to be horizon scanning – and our briefings for members focus on drawing together analysis, emerging evidence and case studies.

Not all towns or cities have the resources, investment or desire to lead the way in technological innovation. But the challenge of bridging the gap between professionals and their vision and understanding of smart cities, and people in communities, is a universal one.

As William Gibson observed: “The future is already here … it’s just not very evenly distributed”.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on smart cities or public participation. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our reading list prepared for last autumn’s Annual UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference looks at some recent literature on smart cities.

The conference Designing smart cities: opportunities and regulatory challenges was held at the University of Strathclyde on 31 March and 1 April 2015, supported by CREATe and Horizon.

The Idox Group is the leading applications provider to UK local government for core functions relating to land, people and property, such as its market leading planning systems. Over 90% of UK local authorities are now customers. Idox provides public sector organisations with tools to manage information and knowledge, documents, content, business processes and workflow as well as connecting directly with the citizen via the web.