Exploring the use of real-time Business Intelligence (BI) within a planning department to better inform decision making
The purpose of planning is to ensure that the right development happens in the right place at the right time, benefitting communities, the economy and the environment. Large quantities of data are recorded during the planning process, but this data is usually retrospective, difficult to access, interpret and use in decision making. Planning databases are usually accessed and examined using proprietary tools that lack the interoperability or complex functionality available in modern ‘Business Intelligence’ tools. Business Intelligence can be defined as the data analysis and presentation of actionable information to help staff, managers and other stakeholders make informed decisions in real-time.
Currently, data reporting in planning is typically periodic, retrospective and time consuming. Data is accessed and examined from large databases through reports that are typically static representations, showing only a snapshot in time. The data shown is often aggregated with no clear link to its source and no means to ‘drill down’, preventing further, detailed analysis. Management is therefore reactive rather than proactive and few reports created in this way are ever made public. In summary, this wealth of data is massively underused in planning decision making.
The use of Business Intelligence would address all these issues, yet it is not widely deployed in local authorities. We see the causes of this as:
- A lack of interest on the part of dominant planning database suppliers to add BI functionality
- A lack of resources in local authorities for non-IT staff to train on modern BI technologies and connect systems together to provide advanced BI reporting
- A lack of familiarity among planners with modern data analysis tools
- A management focus on delivering to regulated targets which are nationally reported, rather than concentrating on the contributory factors of positive outcomes.
The stakeholders who would gain most from planning BI include:
Applicants – applicants would have much more data available to them on which to base their proposals and development strategies; for example, seeing the success rates of types of development in certain locations. This could reduce the risk profile of all applications, speed up the determination process and reduce costs.
Residents – residents would be able to see the impact their elected members and the council’s adopted policies are having on a given area; for example, through performance data shown on a geographical chart. They would be able to cite data in their interactions with local authorities rather than relying on anecdotal evidence. The data would make authorities more accountable.
Officers – planning officers would be able to manage their workload in real-time as well as see trends in their cases. They would be able to see much more readily any issues with cases they are working on. Policy officers would be able to see more clearly the impact of their policies, for example by showing real-time data on housing numbers.
Managers – planning managers would be able to see and respond to issues as they happen, rather than only knowing about an issue when it has already been in existence for a while, (as happens with retrospective data). They would also be able to analyse trends and performance by individual, by team, by ‘client type’ and by geographic area. Managers would be able to make resourcing decisions based on real-time, constantly available data.
Local authorities – LAs would benefit from a greatly reduced cost of reporting and being able to make forecasts and decisions based on real-time data. They would be able to see trends in easily understood charts and maps, improving decision making and strategy creation.
All users – All users would benefit from being able to self-serve online data, shown in charts and graphical outputs, with the ability to ‘drill’ into the source data and manipulate those charts to their specific purposes.
We hypothesize that all planning stakeholders would substantially benefit from accessing and interpreting real-time data using modern BI tools. As described in section 2.2, the current, proprietary tools provided by planning IT suppliers have fallen far behind the leading BI solutions.
To test our hypothesis, Wycombe DC (WDC) has been developing its own pilot during the last year or so. Example screenshots of the tool can be viewed here:
We have seen how our planning service could make use of a BI system and some of the great benefits offered by it, albeit the scope was narrow and internally focussed. The system comprises several IT elements that are somewhat disconnected, ad hoc, and not easily replicable by other councils. Although limited, it has allowed the department to significantly improve its performance and culture. The Council is therefore committed to finding a more coordinated, replicable and publicly accessible system.
The pilot showed us that many planning stakeholders are unable to even describe their information needs in BI terms, as they are simply unaware of the functionality available. To address this in our research, we propose to use the pilot as a demonstrator BI solution.
We would hold a series of workshops with groups of stakeholders from differing council areas. The stakeholders would include applicants, residents, officers, managers and senior authority / member representatives. They would be able to see and use the demonstrator to understand BI and explore how such a tool could meet their information needs.
We would seek to evolve the demonstrator after each session, building in the feedback from each stakeholder group. At the end of the research phase we would have a clear picture of what an integrated system would look like, in terms of architecture and interface.
We would seek to take this forward to an ‘Alpha’ project to build a much more robust, publicly accessible BI system.
A lack of BI creates 2 main costs for councils:
- The cost to report by traditional means
- The opportunity cost of not using the data available in decision making
Cost of traditional reporting
The Planning and Sustainability (P&S) service at WDC operates a time recording system giving detailed insight into their activities. Their reporting costs in 2017 (before the BI pilot) were £34,201.
If we made the unsupported assumption that other councils face similar costs, that would equate to around £13 million annually, just to report on planning activities in local authorities.
In the first year of the BI pilot, the cost fell to £24,983. As new dashboards are added, we expect this figure to drop even further in the future.
The opportunity cost of not using planning data is effectively incalculable. To derive a cost, we would have to first ascertain all the decisions that could benefit from BI data and then estimate the cost of making an under-informed decision for each.
The variation in benefits, from development strategies to case-load management, is so varied that at this stage we would not wish to even make the broadest of estimates. We do, however, consider the opportunity cost to the UK to be substantial. It would be a goal of this research to ascertain a figure for the cost.
The project would use a hybrid waterfall / agile methodology. That is to say, the major phases of work would be set out at the start, but the day to day project would be run in an agile way; responding to stakeholder inputs and project findings.
We would use collaborative workspaces to share progress among the partners.
External communications would be managed via a project website, including a project overview, team details, regular progress updates, media releases, an online community and digital roadmaps. See section 3.9 below for details.
Each partner would have a representative on the steering group with regular meetings / conference calls to monitor progress and engagement.
No additional support is required.