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A return to the ‘paperless’ office

by on January 29, 2013

I published an article on Doncaster’s project to go paperless last year.

At the time there were a number of questions relating to how the authority dealt with site visits, viewed large drawings on screen, the IT kit required and how councillors were engaged.

In this blog post (originally submitted as a comment on the original article), Doncaster’s development management principal officer Jenna Rumley offers another review of the authority’s operations one year on and answers some outstanding questions from the last post.

It should be noted Jenna was not the author of the original report.

Over to Jenna:

What Doncaster Council did, like many authorities, was to take positive steps towards working more effectively. There’s no doubt about it, we had to invest financially initially to ensure we had the IT equipment and software to enable this to be a success.

The strapline “Gone Paperless” I must admit is a bit full on, implying that members of Doncaster Councils Planning Department never print off a piece of paper, ever. This assumption would be absurd.

There was always going to be two phases to the ‘paperless’ approach. Phase one was not to receive paper in to the council offices, not to produce working paper files and to communicate electronically with Planning Applications Online being our public register and hub of information.

This phase has been achieved, front-end receipt, validation and processing of an application is fully electronic (with the exception of production of neighbour letters) and the workflow of the planning application is carried out through our electronic document management system.

At Doncaster we have a highly trained corporate scanning team who scan and index all our internal and external post. All of our Planning staff work with 22-inch dual screen set ups, this helps staff to effectively validate on screen along with the necessary PDF software to enable accurate scaling.

As part of the implementation process we carried out extensive testing whereby we would validate in paper, then on screen to ensure like for like accuracy. This testing is still carried out and always will be on a spot check audit basis.

In respect of quality of plans, the on-screen plan is only as good as the paper plan. Again, after carrying out extensive training and testing we don’t experience any quality deviations.

As part of this we are working closely with our Planning Portal account manager to collectively encourage our customers to submit via the Portal.

Indeed, in Doncaster we receive very large, complex applications whereby it does prove difficult to view the plans in its entirety on two 22-inch monitors. In addition to these monitors we also have a set of larger monitors, if we’re still struggling we will print off the plans we require.

Then it comes to site visits, this is phase two of the implementation which we are only now dipping our toes in to.

We don’t have mobile devices at the moment – currently officers have been using the submitted applicants copy and if it was an electronic submission we’d print off what we need.

This month we have moved in to a new civic building, it’s a hot-desking environment which encourages mobile and agile working. This has brought phase two of the project to the forefront. We’re going to be delving in to the realms of handheld devices. This will hopefully bring us one step closer to our goal.

Also, it’s not just about going paperless for Doncaster, it’s about making changes, whether big or small, which will improve the access to and effectiveness of our service.

A recent amendment we have made is to our planning site notices, we now incorporate a QR code which takes customers directly to the documents associated to the planning application, and a site location plan clearly identifying the site location for development. These small additions are providing our customers with an additional avenue, encouraging participation in the planning process.

However, at Doncaster we’ve found that everything doesn’t run smoothly and that the benefits aren’t just achieved entirely by technology but by addressing strategy, business process and challenging ourselves.

I’m afraid we’re not super heroes, we haven’t had memory upgrades and unfortunately we don’t have super powers. Like everyone else we’re trying to be as efficient as we can with the challenges we’re all facing.

3 Comments
  1. Edward McGill RIBA permalink

    The big problem still to be resolved is how members on site visits, can cross refer to a number of drawings at the same time in a “howling gale” with those drawings balanced on the nearest car boot lid. Maybe a number of “daylight viewing” tablet screens mounted on a easily transportable foldable waterproof windproof panel system? Possibly a projector drawing viewing system fitted in the site visit mini bus, may be a cheaper option, there might be site access issues though?

  2. Some interesting developments there, and it is good to hear about forward thinking within the planning world. Once the mobile tablets come on-stream, it will close the loop on true paperless working. But there also needs a change in mindset away from the “old fashioned” way of viewing plans on paper, and instead engaging with digital displays.

    I wonder if those professionals submitting applications, could help by moving away from line drawings on white backgrounds, to full colour, better annoted and detailed files or even including 3d model files or videos which can be viewed on screen? If an authority is moving to digital viewing, then there is no need to think on sheets of paper. And if an authority encouraged alternative (or additional) digital submissions, then that could potentially help the decision process.

    Finally, if anyone has been following the Google Glass project ( http://www.google.com/glass/start/ ) – which is like a pair of glasses which imposes a digital display in the wearers field of vision, then you can see the potential benefits for anyone involved with planning and design. And it’s not too far away either

  3. Ben Binder permalink

    Excellent case study. I would be very interested to see a comparison of what you did at Doncaster before and after the change i.e. day to day processes. My own LPA is looking at adopting a similar model and we are facing many obstacles before we even start. There is a heavy use of paper in our office and many Parish/Town councils still insist on paper consultation rather than electronic, despite our best efforts. How difficult also was it to ‘educate’ agents/applicants/neighbours in submitting information electronically? From experience many can be stuck in their own ways!

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