The perfect storm is brewing.
Local government departments continue to make yearly cuts, while also facing increasing pressure on minimum standards, particularly in areas like planning – often cited as a barrier to growth.
With planning fees set nationally, councils must cover the cost shortfall in processing planning applications – and with no fee increases since 2012, those costs are increasing. This has resulted in the LGA warning of a serious planning application cost shortfall, with councils needing some £1bn to cover costs over the next five years. At the same time as these external factors, councils continue to support development and deliver better outcomes for their communities while combating a shortage in the supply of professionals needed to deliver critical placemaking services.
Consequently, what would have been a low priority target of resource optimisation in a council department has now developed into something far more complex and significant – a threat to achieving basic resilience.
What is resilience?
In simple terms, managing supply and demand for services to an optimal level, ensuring the closest match possible and reducing wastage or exposure to inadequate resourcing.
Looking first at demand management – this is always going to be a challenge in development-related areas – just look at recent fluctuations in GDP and the impact of BREXIT, etc. However, technology and what is known as optimisation maturity has an increasing role to play.
Optimisation maturity is how advanced councils and organisations are at adopting key operational excellence practices that can support with demand management. The first stage of optimisation maturity is to fully understand operational requirements and gain the control needed to meet demand. Detailed work management technology can be deployed to manage all incoming work and prioritise demand through end-to-end process measurement that matches work to the right skills while maintaining quality and productivity. This use of technology provides transparency through advanced levels of management information (MI) about the processes and practices across teams engaged in development and creates a feedback loop which can drive continuous improvement.
Clearly, we can’t fully predict when work associated with development will arrive, but councils can aim to forecast impacts on their work stream using MI to effectively predict supply and demand requirements through robust capacity planning. There are also wider benefits for councils through the second stage of optimisation maturity by identifying key opportunities to enhance the customer experience through a digitalised contact strategy and streamlining processes. This enables the removal of non-value added waste through LEAN process re-engineering, automation and the use of robotic technology to remove mundane/non-technical tasks.
Following this, once councils have the best possible handle on demand, the question is how do they get the best fit in terms of supply to ensure resilience at all times? Firstly, looking after existing staffing is crucial. Like any business area, as you invest in staff by upskilling and training, and as they gain experience in their role and of the local area (development dynamics, etc), the loss will be felt more acutely should they decide to leave. Creating a clear career path that allows staff the freedom to develop at their own pace but has the flexibility to adapt as they do is critical in achieving resilience. Furthermore, such a framework should proactively recognise quality and productivity as a critical element of modern service delivery, underpinned by system-generated MI.
Agility in operating structures is also key. It’s ideal if staff can benefit from a mix of public and private sector experience without having to leave either sector. By way of an example, one new social enterprise is offering local authorities’ associates, from fields including architecture and urban design, for one year placements. Local authorities are also working to create similar models through regional partnership working.
However, agility can only be achieved with the requisite resources. This is likely to be more achievable in areas which are more cost effective and easier to recruit. Given the short supply of some professionals, such as planners, in many geographical areas, this might not be possible.
We see this first hand in our partnerships. In response to the ongoing recruitment challenge, we’re opening a new office in Belfast, which will support our national offering in England. This may be something that local authorities could consider and think innovatively about in terms of where they locate their staff and which elements of their services can be delivered remotely, potentially in partnership with others.
Alternatively, a mechanism such as a resilience partner, to support service provision to deal with peaks of demand that current staffing supply cannot accommodate, is another good way to ensure the resilience of key services.
So, what will the future bring? The storm doesn’t appear to be subsiding, but many great step changes to service delivery have occurred in such challenging times. Future Cities Catapult, for example, has launched the Future of Planning, a programme exploring how we can create a more data driven and digitally enabled planning system. While ultimately matters of professional judgement will remain, such judgements can only be enhanced by a greater availability of data, and given that the impact of those decisions will be felt for generations to come that can only be a good thing.