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Thread: Planning department process and procedures assessment

  1. #1
    Member
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    Planning department process and procedures assessment

    I am seeking info and direction on locating any planning and/or inspections department that has used customer opinion surveys, interviews, focus groups, and/or any other methods to gain a better understanding of the performance of the department. We do not want a punative process, but want to obtain input to help guide substantive improvements in department performance. This is not about personnel, but about evaluating and re-engineering the prcesses and procedures of the department; or as one consultant said, we need to spend more time looking for causes rather than culprits. We believe that such a project would help improve our service to our community. However, we need guidance in order to ensure that the assessment is objective, unbiased, and relevant.

    For example, we acknowledge that, as in most organizations, our methods of doing things have evolved through the years in a piecemeal basis as procedures have been added to, deleted, or modified. In many instances what started out as a small, simple task has grown into a larger, more complex, and more time consuming methodology. The result is a set of policies, processes and procedures that are often slow, inefficient and not responsive to the needs of either customer or the staff. The system simply evolved, instead of being planned, and became the accepted method of operation because: "That's the way we have always done it!"

    Another area of major concern is in the managing of expectation of our customers. We need to do a better job of informing the customer...up front...of exactly what can be expected from our department. Often we let the customer down because they walk into the door with unreal expectations from us because they don't know everything involved in the granting of a particular permit.

    Thank you so very much for any assistance or for any direction you can provide. Any leads, resources, or thoughts would be greatly appreciated. I can be reached off-forum at dholton@aginet.com.

    Thank you.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    I admire you for wanting to take this on. When I proposed that something similar was needed for my last employer's planning department, you would have thought I shot the planning director's grandmother, burned down his house and ran over his dog with my car. I became public enemy number one. Understand, this is in a city where every business that tries to remain has a horror story to tell, and an "expedited" approval can take over two years. A problem I encountered was that the planning department did its own survey work. They spoke to the contractor or architect or engineer, not the business. "Considering that you will likely have to work with us again some day, and we are the organization that has the ability to kill or complicate your project beyond belief, how would you rate your experience in working with us?"

    "Thank you sir, may I have another?" was interepreted to mean that everybody was completely satisfied with the process and the department.

    A couple suggestions come from this experience. First, try to ask more than just the developer, or architect, or business. It would be interesting to get different viewpoints from the various team members on a project. Second, have your surveys sent out and tabulated by a neutral trusted party, and tell the respondants up front that nobody in the planning department is going to see the individual responses. This will get you a less biased response.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by dqh
    I am seeking info and direction on locating any planning and/or inspections department that has used customer opinion surveys, interviews, focus groups, and/or any other methods to gain a better understanding of the performance of the department.
    I do volunteer work at a homeless shelter in a capacity which allows me to function as an objective observer at times. I have at times been able to suggest solutions which did not occur to people there because I did work there enough to have a little bit of an "insider's" view but was still "on the outside". Some exmples:

    1) The staff was always fighting with the residents about damp towels slung over the wooden bed frames. It was against the rules but it was a rule that was routinely violated. However, it occured to me that the residents really had no place else to hang their damp towels. It wasn't practical for them to do laundry daily, so they needed to hang their towels up so they could dry and be re-used. I did the research and found a towel rack I thought would work well for the specifics of the situation. That was implemented.

    2) I helped automate some of their heavy burden of paperwork. In addition to discussing the needs of the facility with the director, I worked hands-on a few times with the supervisor who did most of the paperwork. That gave me first hand exposure to the exact process she went through and why it was so inefficient. I then designed custom forms (primarily in Excel) based on this better understanding of the situation.

    3) They have two tiny offices shared by staff members. When I did my internship there, I measured the offices and later brainstormed possible improvements. When the topic came up, I explained to the director how to fit 3 work stations instead of 2 into the head office (under 9' x 9' sq.) and how to add more storage for supplies to the staff office. I was initially told that 3 work stations could not fit and that there was no more space for storage. My suggestions were implemented to good effect.

    Maybe an "efficiency expert" could be hired? Perhaps someone who is an objective observer could see things that folks who do it "the way it has always been done" just wouldn't see.

  4. #4
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    Thank you.

    Thank you for the comments...to which I agree. The key is to ensure the anonimity of those surveyed and the validity of the responses. We are getting a professional from the community to handle this for us.

    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    I admire you for wanting to take this on. When I proposed that something similar was needed for my last employer's planning department, you would have thought I shot the planning director's grandmother, burned down his house and ran over his dog with my car. I became public enemy number one. Understand, this is in a city where every business that tries to remain has a horror story to tell, and an "expedited" approval can take over two years. A problem I encountered was that the planning department did its own survey work. They spoke to the contractor or architect or engineer, not the business. "Considering that you will likely have to work with us again some day, and we are the organization that has the ability to kill or complicate your project beyond belief, how would you rate your experience in working with us?"

    "Thank you sir, may I have another?" was interepreted to mean that everybody was completely satisfied with the process and the department.

    A couple suggestions come from this experience. First, try to ask more than just the developer, or architect, or business. It would be interesting to get different viewpoints from the various team members on a project. Second, have your surveys sent out and tabulated by a neutral trusted party, and tell the respondants up front that nobody in the planning department is going to see the individual responses. This will get you a less biased response.

  5. #5

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    Zucker Systems of San Diego is a frim that specializes in doing exactly what you are asking about. You need to contact them.

  6. #6
    Member DRJ's avatar
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    Another method would be to contract with a local university/college to assist with the evaluation and public input. This way you are not doing the analysis and you may get more accurate information.

  7. #7
    I'll echo Lee Nellis and agree that Zucker is quite good. (I attended one of his seminars for planning directors a few years ago and was impressed.)

    When someone says "we've always done it this way" it is a clear expression that they have no idea what they are doing or why. In my office, we are constantly looking to reduce the workload by streamlining as much as possible. The result is much quicker turn-around for permits.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Habanero's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Lee Nellis
    Zucker Systems of San Diego is a frim that specializes in doing exactly what you are asking about. You need to contact them.
    The town I work for hired Zucker Systems to review our procedures. I think their evaluation of our town was pretty much dead on.
    When Jesus said "love your enemies", he probably didn't mean kill them.

  9. #9
    NIMBY asshatterer Plus Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Habanero
    The town I work for hired Zucker Systems to review our procedures. I think their evaluation of our town was pretty much dead on.
    I worked for a county in California that hired ZC. What waste of money. One of his recommendations: install a pay phone in the lobby. We were not impressed.

  10. #10
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by RichmondJake
    I worked for a county in California that hired ZC. What waste of money. One of his recommendations: install a pay phone in the lobby. We were not impressed.
    First bad experience I've heard from anyone on Zucker. Everyone I know that's used him have been very satisfied.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

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