Exploring new user-centred digital systems to make the planning process more efficient and transparent.

Full Application: Funded

Our work during discovery was largely focussed on exploring the user needs of planning officers to understand the challenges they face and the potential benefits of improving the back-end management systems they use. We found that new systems, designed with a user-centred approach, would result in a more efficient and effective processes and a better flow of data throughout the planning system.

Our initial ideas included:

  • Integration with existing and new planning application systems such as Planning Portal, Hackney’s “Submit My Planning Application” and PlanX
  • Automated validation of planning applications to reduce time spent by planning officers and technical support staff
  • Providing applicants with more regular and specific feedback on their applications to smooth the application process
  • Better access for planning officers to relevant policy and case studies to assist their assessment of applications
  • Genuine fast track decision making for permitted development / certificates of lawfulness, prior approvals and policy compliant applications
  • 3D model integration and work-flows
  • Open APIs and alignment with emerging data standards. In order to ensure data within the system is available for monitoring, reporting and integration with other systems and to enable existing and future innovations

The hypotheses behind these ideas will be used as the basis of further conversations with stakeholders and co-design workshops to validate our current thinking, add more detail to our ideas and explore alternative solutions.

We will engage with our partners by conducting testing sessions, putting various iterations of the alpha concepts in front of them, so as to gain feedback and evaluate how well concepts meet user needs.

The riskiest assumptions will be tested first and proposed concepts iterated and adapted as appropriate.

The proposed user research objectives are:

  • Test the proposed idea with users to gain more insight into their needs
  • Learn how to improve the design so that it best meets the identified user needs
  • Testing the team’s assumptions in three key areas: Desirability, Feasibility, Impact

Selected ideas will be prototyped, using either visual “click-through” designs or, where appropriate, coded applications which will be thoroughly tested with planning officers and other stakeholders from multiple councils to identify our MVP.

Throughout discovery we engaged with several different councils and several others have subsequently been in touch to express their interest in helping with the Alpha phase. They include Publica Group, Surrey Heath and Huntingdonshire CC. 

More information about the ideas that emerged from discovery can be found from page 41 of the discovery report: https://localdigital.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Revised-Discovery-Report.pdf

From conversations with the GLA and other boroughs, via London planning officer forums, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current market offering, in terms of back office systems. We then asked the specific question more widely, on slack and by direct email. Answers referenced inflexibility, ‘arrogance’, ‘expense’, ‘outdated’ and ‘very unhelpful’. 

During early research, the insights gained were very much focused on the inadequacies of the existing systems. These were already known issues, some of which were already being addressed by system upgrades/replacement currently in progress at both Southwark and Hackney.

However we were able to uncover some more significant needs as follows:

  • Technical support officers need a better application validation process so it is simpler, less repetitive and less labour intensive
  • Graduate planning officers need more guidance when assessing planning applications, so that they know which factors to consider
  • Planning managers need officers to spend more time working with applicants, to ensure satisfactory outcomes
  • Strategic planners need better access to consistent and accurate data, so that they can gain a better understanding the planning context.

These needs were consistently expressed in the different planning departments we engaged during discovery and can be seen in the existing user journey on page 27 of the discovery report.

The proposed solutions referred to in section 2.2 above, directly address these user needs, as well as the overarching goals of improving efficiency and data flow.

We have outlined an MVP at a high level in the form of a “Story Map” which can be seen on page 48 of the discovery report.

We plan to focus our initial efforts on an MVP system that allows planning officers to more effectively manage “simple” applications. These include householder applications, certificates of lawfulness and minor developments (<10 dwellings), which collectively take up over 50% of case management time. By reducing this time by 50%, we estimate a saving of £250,000 per year for a council similar to Southwark and £22.5M nationally. A more conservative estimate of 10% time saving would result in a £50,000 annual saving in Southwark and £4.5M nationally.

The cost of development is uncertain at this stage but we estimate a total cost of £550,000 to establish the MVP through to ‘live’, including this alpha and the previously funded discovery. There would also be costs of c.£200,000 per year to fund a team to promote, monitor and improve the system, as once live there needs to be continuous maintenance and improvements, if the system is not to become obsolete, both practically and financially. The breakdown in the business case initially looks to develop a full planning service with just three councils until 2021, but then scale to 10 and 50 councils in subsequent years. However, a service for ‘simple’ 8 week planning applications could be rolled out sooner. This would come deliver increasing cost efficiencies.

Full details can be found in the business case produced during discovery: https://localdigital.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Planning-Back-Office-Discovery-Business-Case.pdf

Significant further investment would be required to extend the system to manage all types of planning application. However, if the system were to be adopted by just a handful of councils, there would be a positive RoI.

The partner authorities are all within convenient travelling distance and, given sufficient notice, face to face working is not considered to be an issue. Daily stand up sessions have been found to work best where partners have dialled in every day, if not on site. This ensures momentum is maintained across all individuals. In all previous work, it has been found that for teams to be embedded within the lead authority is essential. This ensures maximum integration and stakeholder buy-in, as well as continual contact and efficiency.

Tools to facilitate daily work and collaboration will include, Google docs, Trello, Miro, Sketch, Marvel, video conferencing and Slack, where appropriate.

Ceremonies, such as show and tells, retros and planning sessions maintain focus and collaboration, so, where possible, these will be rotated amongst partner locations. In part this will be done to foster inclusion, but also to ensure continual governance across all partners.

The support from the team last time was invaluable, especially in terms of confidence, so I would like this to continue. Learning from previous phases, what would be particularly useful in order to engage the wider senior management team and politicians, is some personal contact at the chief executive level, or equivalent.

Being able to access GDS Academy training courses will help to develop existing knowledge and spread the agile practice more widely.

Towards the end of the phase of work, it is the intention to roadshow our work, possibly in collaboration with other ‘plan-tech’ innovations, such as PlanX. Assistance to coordinate this and help to facilitate events and press releases would be much appreciated.

Lastly, as with the discovery phase, This work will be assessed, but this time against full GDS service standards. What would also be appreciated is some coaching in preparation for this and even a mock assessment.