“We were one of the few councils to still provide a pre-application service, and we felt we were accessible to the public,” says Nicola Pearce, development control manager.
But, to the council’s surprise, when it asked customers they said the council was doing badly.
“They said we weren’t answering questions fully, that our letters were full of jargon. And they said staff were hard to get hold of - they were either out on site or away on leave,” says Ms Pearce.
In February, the council piloted systems thinking in its development control service. “We felt here was something with more customer focus, more efficient and quicker,” explains head of planning Geoff White.
Four open-minded staff who were up for a challenge were seconded to develop the new way of working. But it took a lot of time to sell the benefits to others, some of whom were stuck in their ways and needed training.
However, Mr White says this perseverance was worthwhile. “It was quite a long process, but it has been very beneficial,” she says. For example, a test run of 125 planning applications showed a marked reduction in the time taken for approval, from 86 days to 31 days.
Achieving the improvement has not been easy. The service has had to be completely restructured, and staff roles and responsibilities have had to be rewritten. There was also a 10% reduction in staff to deal with, though this was achieved through natural wastage.
But the new structure has enabled greater team working and staff development than was possible previously. “People were used to waiting for orders,” says Ms Pearce. “Now they are constantly learning from each other, and developing their own knowledge and career potential. We hope to grow our own talent in the authority.”
“Previously we used to emphasise speed [of getting things done],” says Mr White. “The systems thinking consultants told us we had to slow down - that it was more important that applications were ‘clean’ [complete] than they were processed fast.”
Mr White adds: “We were all a little sceptical about systems thinking at first, but we have been quite surprised how many benefits we have got out of it.”
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