Our team has just wrapped up the thirteenth sprint of our Back-office Planning System (BoPS) beta phase with Southwark Council, DLUHC 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 has been officer assessments which has included more research and testing into understanding user needs for assessing planning applications. Further research has also been carried out into the validation flow and ideas have been discussed with support staff at the different partner councils. Improvements made also include the officer notes feature, which was also demoed and can be found here. It is now possible for an officer to request a change to the proposal description after validation has taken place along with other key features which were explained during this show and tell.

Understanding user needs for assessments

For this sprint, the process of planning officers carrying assessments has been looked at. A key part of that has been thinking about the ways BoPS as the back office planning system and RIPA as application that applicants or agents use to submit their applications, can work together through the use of data. A real goal for this project is to think about ways to change how planning works by the better use of this data.

Rather than making small efficiency savings to the way planning assessments happen, starting with what the planning officers need is a better approach when thinking about how officers do their job. With this, systems can be built that work to support them to do their jobs in efficient and engaging ways, this can also support better transparency between the local planning authority and the applicants or agents. A key part includes building on research that has been conducted with planning officers from across the partner councils and looking at mapping out the user needs around assessments. Putting planning officers at the heart of the process to think how we can make assessments work for them.

Immunity assessments

Within the theme of assessments, how planning officers assess existing LDC’s has been looked at, particularly those related to four-year or ten-year immunity. Improving the handling of evidence has been a key part to this work by supporting officers to arrange this evidence, store comments against the evidence and to also add dates, in order for timelines to be constructed. An observation from the testing that was carried out, outlined that officers are doing a lot of work structuring this evidence that exists outside of any systems which makes it hard to access this data if you’re another officer who’s picking up a case. Transparency issues occur as well as lots of duplication and copying of paper notes into a digital system. So tools are being created so rather than having pieces of paper, or excel files, BoPS keeps all the data within the system and officers can be confident and efficient in their assessment process. Hopefully there will be development of this in the next coming months.

Research into validation approach

There has been a new validation approach being designed, which is being tested and iterated through interviews with planning support and validation officers across a range of LPAs. A key part of this has been to check on the structure that has been used and the approach that was taken. Testing sessions were started by getting officers to freely structure how they’d ideally like to arrange their work flow and look at which approach they would prefer out of a range of options. Our proposal was then validated by them, based upon this which helped inform improvements and how to prioritise this work going forward as it fits in with the goals of this project.

Requesting changes after validation

A new feature has been added which supports requesting changes after the validation process. Within the validation process there is the capability to support officers to request changes from applicants which auto generates an email and informs the applicants to directly input information or accept and suggest changes to their application. This has been extended to support changes outside the validation process including: description changes, red line changes and new document requests. This is a design proposal of how this would work where the team looks forward to taking this into testing and development going forward.

Infrastructure Cloudfront

BoPS applicant has been added which is the front facing app where an applicant can reply to a request from a planning officer to make their applicant valid. There has been a change to put it behind Cloudfront which is a content delivery network meaning, BoPS applicants will have a higher availability and the team will not have to worry about manually changing the security certificates which will now be provided by amazon.

Screenshot : Infrastructure Cloudfront

Removing description changes from validation

The team is in the process of putting some validation requests outside of the flow due to the idea that a description change should not block the validation of an application, so now the description can be accessed from the edit page.

Auto acceptance for description change

With the removal of description changes from validation this removes the ability of a planning officer to edit the description directly. This still needs to happen, so to enable this, after 5 days of having a description change request open that hasn't been replied to, then this will be automatically closed and the description will be updated to the description that the planning officer has inserted. Due to this, there have been changes to the infrastructure, where there is a process that checks to see if there are any description changes open that need changing every few days. This then gets closed automatically and a notification is sent out to the applicant.

Screenshot: Auto- acceptance for description change

Days left and decision notice

Some visual changes have been made also, now it is possible to see the days left on the planning application page and also see the address. This makes the information on the page easier to access, the target dates have also been colour coded which shows if there is a lot of time for an application to be assessed or not.

Officer Notes

Notes have been added to the planning application so that there will be records of the last notes that were left by the planning officer.

What’s next?

In the next sprint, further assessments and general improvements will be looked at including improving the process. We will look at the ability for applicants to upload multiple files.

Allowing officers to cancel and edit validation requests which they have already sent out will be looked at as well as agreeing the best way to filter and sort the list of applications on the BoPS landing page so it easier for officers to navigate between their different cases.

Lastly accessibility will be looked at to ensure everyone will be able to access and use BoPS.

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-HpeKF5Sgc&t=1076s

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

Written by Fiacré Baidoo