Reducing Invalid Planning Applications project — Beta Phase

Today (well, Friday 5th June) was the kick-off session for the Beta phase.

During our Beta bid interview, we explained that if successful, two additional aims would be:

1. Provide a blog of our progress to share more openly what is going on / our learning

2. Spend more time reaching out and meeting other councils to show them our work and build interest and engagement

This is the first of those blogs — hopefully a bit interesting and useful too. We’ll be posting more as we go along on the next chapter of this exciting digital transformation planning revolution…

A look back over Alpha

We started out with five councils, Camden, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Wycombe — all fully engaged — all really up for meeting and workshopping ideas. MHCLG gave us Agile training — and most of the team attended a three-day course — so we had a shared reference point and understanding from that experience. And in the room, from the start — we had the benefit of five partner councils in our team (together with our developer OSL) all committed, enthusiastic, willing to learn and fully engaged in our Alpha project. Our style of working — collaboratively across different authorities with a different range of people — fired everyone up.

The team at OSL started Alpha with some reverse engineering. Coming to understand all the documents involved in validating an application and then picking those documents apart so that we could — in turn — turn those docs into data…..and then we could identify all the data involved in an application which led us to the schema, a rather beautiful document to view in full — this is an extract of that schema:

This led to identifying all the documents that would be needed relating to a householder application — our scope for the Alpha.

Pre-RIPA start, the Wycombe team had already undertaken an overhaul of their local validation list to create a new culture of validation. They were trying to encourage an approach that thought critically about Why are we asking for a document instead of just asking for things because That’s what we’ve always done….

Wycombe’s work was primed to feed into the work on the schema. It also provided a good opening discussion for the wider project team with the partner LA’s posing the question: Why do we ask for the data we currently ask for? Why do we have huge validation lists that have ambiguous and many requirements? Out of thisall the partners provided their local lists and Emily in the Wycombe team combined this into one big list.

From all of this we learnt things about how far the idea of turning documents into data could be taken — where we need to let documents be documents and where that information can be transferred into data. Most of this work is completed, but as the Alastair-led RIPA mantra goes…nothing is ever truly finished….

Everything seemed to be going so well then — late in the day — we discovered we’d made a slight error of judgement. Our MHCLG support pointed out — you need a professional User Researcher, you need to understand about consents, about moderated testing, observing….

So.. how do you recruit for something you’ve no experience of? Answer: lots of additional last-minute research trying to understand and learn super fast … What is it they do? What do they need to understand? Will we necessarily know that they understand it even if we ask the right question? (What is Guerrilla testing anyway and what about Balsamiq, Gliffy, Smapl they all sound impressive but how will we know they know how to use them?)

The Big Questions: How do you test someone’s ability when you don’t know what you’re trying to test…..and how do you do all this when it’s only three week’s until Christmas and most people will be off on holiday for two weeks…..?

Meanwhile, back in developer land….next up was the writing of the basic shape of the service flow — lots of known unknowns.

With everyone fired up with enthusiasm for the project team — we held workshops after each of our fortnightly sprint Show and Tells. Lots of idea — interesting and useful information came out of these sessions which were fed into the design as well as our individual learning.

Back at ‘crisis head office’ — with HR and procurement obstacles successfully navigated, we finally had our User Researcher in place. Over halfway through the project but we didn’t lose heart, stayed upbeat and set about drawing up information sheets, consent forms, screeners and the like and finally reached the point where we could start to test with paper mock ups on our User volunteers.

User Testing. That took us by surprise. We ended up being complete converts to the process.

They had so much more to teach us and despite thinking we had a good idea, we didn’t really know what they wanted — we couldn’t predict what they would or wouldn’t like.

We couldn’t spot what they would struggle to find, because we knew the system and requirements too well…

With the first session we observed came the comment: “I was fairly cynical…but I got a warm fuzzy feeling all over…I realized … this is throwing up really useful stuff”

With the flows — we have about 80% of the picture, but there’s lots of bits we will uncover through the Beta stage — like free go rules (where an application is refused and, within a certain time frame, the applicant is allowed to resubmit a revised attempt free of charge) at present — that’s not included in the flow. There are also lots of other trickier, more nuanced things to consider such as boundaries.

Here’s one of the major pluses we continually marvelled at throughout Alpha — having a fully engaged, truly collaborative team of five different councils with a wide range of skills, experience and expertise meant we already had in the room a really good level of diversity and knowledge / experience. This collaborative thing our group has — is at the heart of something special.

There are lots of limitations that we can acknowledge but we’ve broken-down lots of things that we didn’t realize we could do as much of. It’s been interesting to see, with all the documents we have, that actually, we only need a small amount of data out of them. So, instead of the hundred’s of pages of data we get — instead, we can just ask for three or four fields that can be whittled down — making user lives so much easier in the end.

Then came the Coronavirus and lockdown and delivering the final deliverables in a suddenly transformed world — it didn’t go unnoticed the irony of suddenly finding ourselves entirely digital trying to deliver the outcomes of a digital project..

…..by early April we finalized and submitted our outcomes (read the report here) including a benefits case, user research findings, recommendations report and prototype and during one full-on week decided and finalized what to include/what to drop/what to say and how to say it/show it….and then…we took a breather….a mini hiatus until now, the start of June and the start of our Beta phase….

Originally published at https://medium.com on June 9, 2020.

We’ve made it to Beta. An MHCLG funded project, led by Lambeth with five partners — Buckinghamshire, Camden, Lewisham, Northumberland and Southwark