Careers Advice: Empowering planning officers to take charge of their own application caseload

Written by: Bethany Cullen
Published on: 13 Aug 2018

Camden - Flickr: George Rex

In common with the wider public sector, the development management service at Camden Council has been faced with the task of reducing spending.  

This has come at a time when there has been growing demand for its service and growing acceptance that planning’s role needed to be more proactive in order to facilitate the delivery of development that would provide new homes and jobs for the borough.   

In facing this challenge Camden took the opportunity to fundamentally rethink the way its development management service operates. The starting point for our journey was the ‘systems thinking’ methodology, reimagining the planning process from the customer perspective. This approach allowed us to conceptualise the planning processes not as a series of discrete activities, but rather as a ‘journey’ which an application must follow in order for the customer to receive their decision.

The focus was quite simply on deconstructing the traditional system, identifying value and waste, and putting it back to together to eliminate as much waste as possible. The process created a system which was better and also more efficient than it was before.

Our new approach is based on the concept that one officer should be responsible for managing a site from pre-application to post decision. From the moment that an application arrives in the department it is handled by the case officer. They are responsible for managing the whole process including validation and consultation. This has eliminated the handovers and the delays that they caused.

A fundamental principle of our approach is ‘empowerment’: officers at all levels of the service are encouraged to take greater responsibility for managing their own caseloads, but with appropriate support and mentoring.  Whilst we allocate some cases directly to officers, this is limited and most work is self-allocated with officers taking new cases as they have capacity. This allows them to ensure that they are on top of their caseload and are able to provide a better quality of service to customers.

Self-allocation requires ‘trust’ as individual officers have to exercise judgement in managing their time. Our experience of this has been positive, and that officers have acknowledged the trust given with respect and conscientiousness. One of the key benefits of the flexibility afforded to officers is that they are free to challenge themselves to take on more complex cases when they feel ready to do so, and/or to focus on an issue which particularly interests them and become a champion on it. They have more involvement in establishing the pace and path of their career with our support.    

The role of a team manager has undeniably changed as part of this process, with less complaints and smoother running of the process, they have more time to focus on the value adding aspects of their roles, supporting staff and sharing knowledge, experience and guidance with their officers. We have put in place a programme of group sessions where officers can bring cases for lively debate. The managers facilitate these discussions, all officers are encouraged to attend and to express their views, and in doing so are given the opportunity to consider complex issues which they would not otherwise be exposed to through their regular caseload. It is a great learning environment and also aids consistency in our decision making. Since the introduction of this approach we have seen an encouraging number of our officers successfully gaining promotions to more senior roles. I have always been a strong supporter in ‘growing your own’ as it builds a strong team with good local knowledge and again results in a better customer experience.

Bethany Cullen is head of development management at Camden Council