Blog / Creating a user-centered back office planning system with Southwark Council & Partners

May 15, 2019

Planning departments in local authorities are currently experiencing a sector-wide problem: back-end case management systems aren’t meeting the needs of the Planning Officers using them.

Over the last few years, a number of pain points have emerged from current systems and processes, including:

  • 40%+ of applications submitted via Planning Portal arrive incomplete, resulting in lengthier administration processes and higher costs
  • Poor and non-responsive user interfaces make it difficult for Planning Officers to succeed in meeting their goals
  • Poor data quality and data accessibility is affecting authority strategic considerations A lack of required integration capabilities across different systems is blocking streamlined processes, increasing administration activity
  • Local authorities are reliant on external software providers to update their product roadmaps, based on feedback — a lengthy and non-guaranteed process

Enabled through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Local Digital Fund, a partnership of local authorities has identified an opportunity to begin understanding how a cross-authority, user-centered solution for providing back-end case management could unlock wider impact across the overall planning system, increasing efficiency.

Discovering the pain of Planning Officers

An Unboxed team (including team member from Hackney Council) has been working with this partnership, consisting of Southwark Council, Hackney Council, Greater London Authority and Connected Places Catapult, across an 8-week discovery phase to begin forming an understanding of the pain experienced by Planning Officers through existing systems and processes.

Back Office Planning Discovery – Week 1 from Unboxed on Vimeo.

From discovery, some of the insights uncovered include:

  • Different local authorities have different systems and processes
    The planning application process varies from authority to authority, including differences in the classification of different types of planning applications (e.g. application code types and descriptions). Whereas some local authorities drive all their applications through an existing system, some local authorities still have some manual, paper-based processes in place.
  • Useful data is difficult to access
    Planning application data is currently held in a series of PDF documents, as part of the application process, making it difficult for this to be accessed and used by a number of interested parties (e.g. Greater London Authority’s London Development Database). Improving accessibility and visibility of this data can provide the opportunity to tap into further benefits.
  • Inefficiencies are increasing submission timescales
    ‘8-week’ planning applications are typically the highest volume of application types, but often lack the required details, leading to resubmissions and lengthier timescales for both residents and planning teams. Increasing the first-time completion rate of these application types could greatly reduce additional time spent by Planning Officers per application.

Two potential propositions

Towards the end of discovery, the team carried out a co-design workshop with a number of Planning Officers to begin translating what we’ve been hearing into tangible concepts for validation.

See these activities in action:

Southwark Planning Week 07 from Unboxed on Vimeo.

Following this session, teamed with opportunity statements from user interviews, two potential concept propositions emerged for how to begin unlocking wider impact across the overall planning system:

  • A data-informed workflow
    A concept consisting of structured data from new submission systems, seamlessly integrated into the new back-office system, enabling a data-driven workflow that benefits applicants, case officers, and strategic planners alike

A data-informed workflow

  • A collaborative 3D workflow
    A future-oriented workflow, where an openly available 3D city plan is co-created through new planning applications that include submissions of 3D models


What’s next?

Following the completion of this discovery phase, and successfully passing a Local Government Digital Service Standard service assessment, a set of user needs have validated the continuation into the following alpha phase.

The team has recently published the discovery phase outcomes report via the Innovate Southwark blog: take a look here.