Our team has just wrapped up the twelfth sprint of our Back-office Planning System (BoPS) beta phase with Southwark Council, MHCLG and partners.

Our aim is to create a user-centred back-office planning system that uses accurate, up-to-date records and data to increase efficiency across the planning application process and meet the needs of local authority planning teams.

Find out more about the project here: BoPS digital.

Progress across the last sprint

The theme for the past sprint focused on evidencing the assessment against GPDO and validation improvements, meaning when a case officer has a Lawful development certificate in front of them, they will be assessing what is proposed against the regulations in the GPDO. Validation has also been looked at to ensure the case officer has received the application and what are the steps they are taking to make sure that the application is valid.

Other activities including the addition of the GPDO references have been added into the tool and there has been some positive feedback. RIPA and BoPS can now receive the same file type and carry out user testing with case officers on that process. Research of immunity has been carried out and ensuring how we capture our research activities are documented and up to date. This will allow us to push that through to the next phase of the delivering process to develop new functionality. Email notification updates have been made in regards to who we send emails to and lastly there have been a few showcase events to future partner councils.

Live applications

The MVP of Bops is currently live and is processing applications submitted by real users, this allows the ability of development and iteration in-the-wild to occur. Applications are being processed across three councils and 14 applications have been received in total, this comes from the invite-only private beta to applicants and agents. With the agile approach this has allowed responses to questions or bugs to be processed quicker.The feedback received then allows the tool to be iterated further to make BoPs better. In the near future, moving to a public beta is being thought of so user numbers can increase which in turn allows us to learn faster.

Iterating the validation process

A lot of time was spent to support validation to take place within BoPS and features were built that have continued to be iterated and improved. In the last sprint a step was taken back to look at the overview of what has been built and how it supports validators to do their job. Across the partners, three experts in validation had a look at the process and also other ways it could be improved. This led to a working vision for how validators can better support the processing of applications.

Validation vision: ‘Vallidators add value to the process by clearly articulating how invalid things (e.g. documents, red line boundaries or fees) can become a valid thing’

From the interviews and testing, the process of prototyping an iteration of the validation process which looks at a step-by-step validation process. This aims to reduce the amount of documentation and program manipulation by validators. The principle is to bring all the information to the validators which removes this work from them and reduces the load on memory, in order for the validators to focus on if an application is valid and explaining how it can be made valid if not.

Research into immunity applications

There has also been some ongoing research into assessments of immunity applications. The interviews that have been conducted are with enforcement officers, one has been carried out with more to follow. These will aim to allow thinking around how BoPs can support immunity assessments.

Improved documentation of research and testing

The approach of user testing administration has changed during this sprint with all the separate testing related google docs being moved to one single doc. This can now be accessed by partners from both RIPA and BoPs projects. A short session was run to explain the different parts of the doc to the partners so they could understand the full testing process from agreeing the journey, writing and creating the specific scenario and running that through RIPA. Then preparing the testing session by prepping the feedback sheet so that it would be tailored to that specific journey or question that we wanted to be answered. The new doc will aim to improve the understanding of when the testing sessions are going to take place and how to join a session. The feedback received describes how easier it is for partners to access all the BoPs testing related information in one place as that was a source of confusion in the past.

Officer assessment against GPDO

Across this sprint, one of the key pieces of functionality that has been looked at is one of the most important things a planner will do when determining a planning application, particularly a lawful development certificate application. When a lawful development application comes in, it will be assessed against the clauses in GPDO depending on the class of development. It was recognised that there was a user story here for the case officer, they wanted to be able to record which part of the GPDO the application related to and the specific clauses that were either complied with or not. A functionality has been developed that enables the case officer to do so, it is in the early stages but testing has started.

Using an agile approach has been key to this process and also only investing time and energy into building this as is needed so that we can learn and answer questions. The hypothesis that is being tested out is that by providing policy references in a way that can be marked as whether it complies or not which helps the officer through their assessment process. An MVP has been built that allows this to take place which has been tested with two officers so far and an additional four have been planned.

Decision Notice

As an assessment has been done and a recommendation has been made, decision notices have to be issued. Within this sprint, the content was agreed for the lawful development certificate notices which is both for refusals and approvals and proposed or existing development. The three partner councils, Lambeth, Buckinghamshire and Southwark came together to agree the decision, including wording and content.

Collaboration with the RIPA dev team

The other element of collaboration that takes place within the project is ensuring that the development teams work together and collaborate where appropriate. This also helps to understand how the tools/products work and that data transferred between them. An example of this is mapping which was touched on in the last sprint.

Map tool consistency

This sprint we ensured that when engaging with the applicant i.e. validation and there is an error on the red line plan, an updated red line plan is sent to the applicant. The applicant can now see the same ordnance survey base map. This consistency across all products is now there and it gives the case officer the assurance that everything is the same and the red line doesn't move between different types of base maps, just one, which is really helpful.

Scale Bar

Scale bars have now been added to maps which is another mapping functionality that has been added. At present it is a dynamic scale bar so as the applicant or case officer zooms in and out they will see the scale bar moving and future iteration of this will be looked at to consider regular used scales.

Notifications correctly addressed to the recipient

Another functionality introduced to this sprint is ensuring that depending on the application information received from the agent or applicant, we now make sure that we contact the correct person in terms of notifications i.e. that the application has been received or if the application is invalid or valid.

BoPs/RIPA Showcases

Three showcases were presented to 17 new councils who are not currently in the project, this was to showcase BopS and RIPA the end to end application process. The showcase took place to garner interest about councils potentially coming on board to join the project. DLUHCs formerly known as MHCLG are organising this and will be seeking out expressions of interest over the next coming months for potential partners to join the project.

What’s next?

In the next sprint, validation improvements and assessing applications will be looked at as well as testing some of the assessment processes that were built in this sprint. Further research on immunity applications and how BoPs look at calendar days to work out specific and important dates within the system, to ensure it is consistent with bank holidays etc.

The BoPS team are keen to speak to more planning teams in other local authorities across the country to set up user testing sessions. If you’d be interested and can spare some time to help with the project, please get in touch via bops@southwark.gov.uk.

See the full recorded Show and Tell as well as a live demo here:

Follow BoPS on Twitter for the latest updates: @BoPs_Digital.

Written by Fiacré Baidoo