Local authorities lack an efficient, user-centred system that provides back-office case management, transactional functions, and an easily navigational database. The national market is currently dominated by just two providers, meaning that commercial incentives to support innovation are low. The exising systems can be slow, resistant to interoperability, and usually require planning officers to learn a number of system ‘work arounds’ just to be able to effectively manage their application case loads.
The practical problems associated with poor quality software create challenges not just for individual case officers and local planning departments, but for the effective administration of the national planning system as a whole.
The cost of the problem
- High cost of change – projects cost >£1m to transition from one provider to another and are lengthy and resource intensive
- Hackney Council estimates it spends >£250,000 in administration time
- Connected Places Catapult found that planning authorities in England receive ca. 450,000 planning applications a year. A typical household application takes 4-7 hours to process, yet ca. 50% of these are returned as invalid because they lack the right information. Assuming an average salary of £50,000, ca. £500M is wasted annually across the UK.
A collaborative approachThe BoPS project is being funded by the Local Digital Fund as a collaborative project.
See the funding application here.
Our overall approach to this project is through agile and user-centred methodologies, cross-authority collaboration and open and transparent communication. The project is centred around the idea that Planning Officers are best placed to understand what they need to be able to carry out an informed, accurate planning assessment - so we have used the experiences and needs of these users to shape the direction of the project.
Agile, user-centred methodologiesAligned with the GDS Service Standard, GDS Service Manual and Local Digital Declaration, our approach for this collaborative project is through agile methodologies.
Our multidisciplinary project team has been working within the framework of agile sprints – short, two-week learning cycles. Each sprint includs activities to learn, synthesise, and share new knowledge, ensuring:
- User needs are prioritised at the forefront of project direction and any key decisions
- Continuous learning and adapting to change is central to our approach
- Short sprint learning cycles are implemented — making, testing and learning in order to respond to user needs
Each sprint also includes key agile meetings:
Daily standup — sharing daily updates across the team and identifying any blockers so that these can be resolved as soon as possible, preventing any hold-up on the project’s progression
Sprint planning — scoping, prioritising and agreeing project work for over a two-week period, so that the team knows exactly what they should be working on and why
Show & Tells — sprint updates to wider teams and stakeholders, to maintain interest and engagement with the project
Retrospectives — looking back on the previous sprint to identify what has gone well and what could have gone better, so that the team is continuously improving its aproach to working going into the next sprint
Sharing sprint progress with planning teams at the Southwark office.
Cross-authority collaborationAt the very core of the MHCLG Local Digital Fund and BoPS is the need to be a project that addresses common local service challenges in common, reusable ways. This means that as many users as possible will be able to benefit from the outcome of the project.
Our approach needs to ensure that any learning and outputs from this project can be adopted across multiple local authorities, regardless of demographics (location, size, number of employees, digital capabilities and accessibility requirements).
To achieve this, our team is:
Working with a wide pool of project partners — to ensure what we are doing can work across multiple local authorities, we are working as a team of five individual authorities (Southwark, Croydon, Coventry, Hackney and Greater London Authority), as well as MHCLG
Recruiting and onboarding a wide demographic — our team is actively recruiting non-London and London, rural and inner city local authorities across the UK, ensuring representative groups of users
Carrying out primary research on location — undertaking primary user research (interviews, shadowing, process mapping, co-design sessions) across individual UK authorities to gain an understanding of their user needs and wider process and technical landscapes
Open and transparent communicationTo ensure open communication across the project, our team has embedded a core set of tools and practices, including:
A cloud-based team toolkit — Slack for day-to-day team conversation (using the shared PlanTech workspace for wider working), Trello as our project board, Google Drive as our team drive and Whereby for video conferencing
Regular Show & Tells — 30-minute Show & Tells each sprint to share progress and next steps, providing a platform for feedback and strategic input from stakeholders (as well as recording each Show & Tell for those who are unable to be there in person)
Publishing weeknotes — sharing progress each week through publishing project weeknotes on the Innovate Southwark website
Sharing videos — recording and sharing short videos of team activities
Continuous user research and testing is core to our approach, ensuring that we are gathering feedback every sprint, iterating based on this feedback, and getting this back into the hands of users for further testing and feedback. Through these continuous cycles of user testing, we can ensure that we’re constantly responding to feedback and working towards meeting user needs.
We have been conducting in-depth research and testing with Planning Officers and planning managers across our local authorities, as two of the main user groups of BoPS, as well as ICT specialists and Enforcement Officers. Testing has been taking place virtually since March 2020.
To ensure that we’re engaging with a wide range of different local authorities, we have been carrying out user research and testing with London and non-London, and inner city and rural local authorities.
Our approach to user research includes:
- User interviews — one-to-one interviews
- Process shadowing — shadowing planning officers and managers using existing systems and ways of working
- Co-design — creating sessions with users to co-design early concept based on their needs
- Prototype and code testing — getting prototypes and code into the hands of users to move through the end-to-end user journey, gathering feedback and insights to then apply to further iterations
If you are a planning officer or work within a Local Planning Authority, and would like to learn more about the BoPS project, please get in touch. The project team is able to offer product demos and can also host product testing.
Duration: 8-weeks (January - March 2019)
The project team began the project with a discovery phase, aligned with the GDS Service Standard, to explore the problem space and identify the needs of planning officers and planning managers.
Activities completed across the discovery phase included:
User research — carrying out contextual face-to-face interviews, shadowing planning officers using existing back-office systems, user journey mapping, user story formation and defining emerging design principles
Technical exploration — tracking data through the current planning application systems and processes, and investigating emerging data standards across other related systems and projects
Business case definition — exploring cost per application type across different councils and identifying opportunities based on time spent per application per team
Concept creation — facilitating co-design workshops with planning officers, creating a series of concept prototypes based on emerging user research, and testing concepts across London and non-London council teams to gather feedback
The team engaged with:
- 7 x London borough councils (Southwark, Hackney, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Lambeth and Islington)
- 1 x Metropolitan district council (Leeds)
- 2 x other councils (Canterbury and Huntingdonshire)
See the full discovery report here.
Duration: 8-weeks (October - December 2019)
Following the completion of the discovery phase, the project was awarded further MHCLG funding, enabling the team to continue into the alpha phase.
During the Alpha phase, the team prioritised a focus on building a product to support the ‘assessment and recommendation’ of applications, with our main users being planning officers and planning managers.
Activities across the alpha phase included:
Prototyping and testing — creating prototypes based on user needs (identified through discovery), contextual user testing sessions with individuals across planning teams and gathering feedback based on usability
Prototype iteration — forming user feedback into tangible iteration recommendations, iterating our prototypes based on received feedback, and carrying out further rounds of user testing with planning teams to validate prototype changes
Technical exploration — exploring the wider planning application system across all emerging services, and integrating with Hackney Council’s ‘Submit my Planning Application’ system to pull planning application data into a technical prototype
Business case definition — analysing costs and benefits of the project, modelling a system rollout across local authorities, and deriving value for money
As part of alpha phase user testing, the team carried out:
- 30 x back-office prototype testing sessions with planning team staff
- 2 x reviews of as-is process maps developed by partner local authorities
- 3 x planning application process shadowing sessions
The team engaged with 14 local authorities:
- 7 x London borough councils: Croydon, Greenwich, Islington, Lambeth, Redbridge, Southwark, Waltham Forest
- 4 x city councils: Coventry, Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield
- 3 x district councils in rural areas: Braintree, North West Leicestershire, Wycombe
To conclude the alpha phase, the team tested and validated four prototypes:
- Assessment and review (for Planning Officers)
- Assessment and review (for Planning Managers)
- Planning application API integration
See the full alpha report here.