Hot Management Info for 2011

January – Plan Check Software
February – Plans May Not Work but Planning Does
March – Lighten Up
April – Best Practices Comparisons for Development Process
May – Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
June – Disband Planning Department – Again!
July – The Paperless Office for Development Review
August – Find Your Ukulele Moment
October – Please Shut Up!
November – Your Next Step – Make Yourself Indispensable!
December – Privatization

January 2011 – Plan Check Software

The Paperless Office

Many jurisdictions in the U.S. now offer electronic/online permitting by using Land Management and Permitting software to automate and add efficiency and convenience to processes within departments such as Building, Planning, Engineering, and more. To complement and enhance these efforts, jurisdictions of all sizes nationwide are now moving to paperless, electronic plan submittal, plan check/review, and plan management as well.  By moving to electronic plan submittal and review, the entire permitting process, including review and approval, can now be done without any printing or physical transport of paper plans. The paperless office is here and we expect that most planning, building and engineering departments will be making the transition over the next few years. The paperless office will have a number of features including electronic Internet based intake (with credit cards), a permit processing system (Accela Automation, Amanda, Avolve, EnerGov, Hansen, HTE, MUNIS, Posse, Sierra Plus, Tidemark, Trakit etc.), and electronic files. However, central to any system is the use of electronic Plan Check Software.

Plan Check Software

Moving from paper to electronic processes has numerous benefits, but managing the change in processes and making it a positive change for employees and the development community is critical. As such, it is essential that the best possible software be used to assist in the transition. A number of vendors are now actively marketing software (Avolve Software’s ProjectDox System, Sire’s Active Review). As a company policy, we do not tie ourselves to any one vendor. However, we do know that some of the products are clearly superior to others, so do your research before buying. Most jurisdictions who have implemented electronic plan check and review are using larger computer monitors. Some are using two screens, a 20″ and 30″. Others are using 40″ screens.


The Return on Investment from implementing electronic plan check and review varies depending on each jurisdiction’s situation.  To date, there is little hard core economic analysis to support this direction. However, the benefits are clear and include at a minimum the following: 

  1. Internal efficiency gains. We have heard 50% as an example.
  2.  Faster time check times.  We have heard as much as 65%.
  3. Assisting in green initiatives. Vast amount of paper is not needed.
  4.  Major reduction in storage costs. The electronic files are stored rather than paper.
  5.  Immediate access to plans by field staff using field computers.
  6.  Easy review by multiple reviewers and departments who need not be on site.
  7.  Economic development stimulus through faster plan check times.
  8. Applicants want it. The biggest supporter is likely to be the applicants. It is not only paper saving but time savings in correcting plans and working with multiple design specialists that may be located in different cities.  Virtually all plans are already designed electronically and are already in electronic format.
  9. Accuracy can increase due to the ability to trace corrections and changes from version to version.
  10. We are told that a number of large national retail chains are beginning to insist on electronic plan check.
  11.  Encourages developers to take out a permit since it is easier, particularly for trade permits (one community suggested a tripling of permits).
  12. Electronic plans are accessible in the field for emergency response functions.
  13. Reduces drive time, gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
  14. Ease in circulating plans to off-site plan check consultants.

The major impetus for electronic plan check has been for building plan check. This is likely because of the large size of plans but also the high volume of plans. Planning has been slower to come on board but both planning and engineering are beginning to see the advantages.

Typical Features
  • Create submitter profiles to manage security settings
  • Submit applications and attachments online
  • Check the status of submittal real time
  • Resubmit changes as necessary
  • Review and compare marked up drawings
  • Floor to floor comparisons
  • Set deadlines
  • Automatic notifications and escalation procedures
  • Perform concurrent reviews by multiple departments
  • View and markup of different file formats online, including DWG, PDF, CAD layers, etc.
  • Reduce processing times by up to 80%
  • Vastly improve accuracy
Who is Doing It?

We will be sending out a Survey Monkey survey on progress to date and will share this with our emailers when completed. Listed below are the names of places, not all verified, that we have so far. Any additional communities or corrections would be appreciated.

Underway and Using




1.       Atlanta, Georgia


Project Dox

2.       Bend, Oregon


HTE software & Project Dox

3.       Castle Rock, Colorado



4.       Charles Abbott Associates, Inc

Building plan check consultant


5.       Clark County, Nevada


Project Dox

6.       Collier County, Florida



7.       Daytona Beach, Florida



8.       Denver, Colorado


Internal system

9.       District of Columbia


Project Dox

10.   Edmonton, Canada


land development applications

11.   Howard County, Maryland


Project Dox,

12.   Lake County, Florida


Internal system

13.   Lee County, Florida



14.   Lincoln, Nebraska (planning)


Project Dox

15.   Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix)


Project Dox,

16.   Marion County, Florida



17.   Mesa County, Colorado



18.   Mission Viejo, California



19.    Mono County, California



20.   Mukiteo, Washington


Paladin Data Systems.

21.   Nashville, Tennessee



22.   Osceola County, Florida


Permits Plus & Project Dox

23.   Palm Coast, Florida


Project Dox

24.   Polk County, Florida


Project Dox

25.   Salt Lake City


Accela Automation -Bldg only & Project Dox

26.   State of Idaho


CRW and Project Dox

27.   Albuquerque, New Mexico


Project Dox

Getting Going




1.       Boise, Idaho


Project Dox

2.       Bristol, Tennessee


Bldg. site plans, plats

3.       Burbank, California


Project Dox

4.       Columbus, Ohio


Project Dox

5.       Davie,  Florida


building and site plans, Project Dox

6.       Forsythe County, Georgia



7.       Ketchum, Idaho



8.       Medford, Oregon



9.   San Bernardino County, California


Project Dox

10.   Santa Monica, California


Project Dox, Building


1.       Brookfield, Wisconsin



2.       Division of State Architect, California

24 million

For school construction

3.       Downers Grove, Illinois



4.       Fridley, Minnesota



5.       Gwinnett County, Georgia



6.       Lonetree, Colorado


Bldg, 20″ and 32″ monitors, AutoDesk

7.       Lowndes County, Georgia



8.       Mequon, Wisconsin



9.       Mountain View, California



10.   Santa Clara, California



11.   Seattle, Washington



12.   Shoreline, Washington


in place but applicants not using

13.   Vancouver, Washington


moving from Tidemark to Hansen

Let us know if we can help,

The Management Doctor

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February 2011 – Plans May Not Work but Planning Does

I was struck by the following paragraphs from a new book, Now Build A Great Business, by Mark Thompson and Brian Tracy. Although they were talking about the private sector, their works have great meaning for city and county planners.

Planning Works

    When the storm descended, Moritz and the management teams of his companies undertook a crash course in strategic and financial planning. They worked around the clock to create many different versions of their business plans. Moritz would often reassure those who had pulled all-nighters by repeating an ironic-sounding mantra: Plans may not work, but planning does! 

    In other words, the economy may not make it possible to deliver on your plan exactly as you planned it, but the process of planning is mission-critical. It is the only way to be clear about your choices. Planning is essential to consider what it takes to survive, grow and prosper in any economic environment.

    In turbulent economic cycles, the planning process is no longer the abstract endeavor taught in business school; every alternative must be considered and the best options turned instantly into action. During the crisis, Moritz’s companies had a clear plan to track where every penny was spent and tie it back to customer service, quality, innovation and growth. 

    Your ability to develop a great business plan, and then to set and implement business strategy, is at the heart of your business success. 

Reader Responses

How about (and this is more for General Plans and the like): “It’s not really a Plan, until it leaves the Planning Department.”

Brian R. Smith

How about these planning quotes that fly around in Florida: “A plan may not be plan even if DCA approved it.” Or “Growth management is no substitute for planning.”

Richard P. Goss

Ormond Beach, FL

I always tell my committees, “You need a plan from which to deviate…”

Anne Krieg

Bar Harbor

We routinely here from people, even some of those on our Comp Plan Implementation Committee, that “it is just a plan – it doesn’t really affect zoning.”

Rich Roedner

Topsham, ME 

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March 2011 – Lighten Up

My office manager just reminded me that we forgot to send out a March Management Info article. Maybe that means we are working too hard – time to lighten up. So click on the links below:


  1. Look at this great movie from Winston/Salem for their new planning effort.
  2. Look again at the movie on our website about a bar getting a permit for its annual Oktoberfest.
  3. And, since I have my own Czechoslovakia polka band and am of German heritage, you have to take a look at these twins playing the accordion while roller skating.

We don’t have our ZBand on YouTube yet, but will try to film our 2011 Oktoberfest.

Have fun,

The Management Doctor

Your videos are great. Our Chamber has one done about the Brainerd, Minnesota downtown from 1962!!  You can tell by the grainy footage.

Mark Ostgarden AICP

City Planner

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April 2011 – Best Practices Comparisons for Development Process

I recently had the opportunity to review the development process for 36 Long Island cities, towns, and villages. As part of this project I was asked to indicate what I consider best practice and also the norm for planning. I have strong opinions about best practice but also recognize that the times to process planning applications varies substantially from state to state. I have shown what I believe are reasonable timelines.  There are few national statistics so it would be helpful if emailers could provide additional information. I base my norm opinion on the 160 studies we have conducted in 31 states, our survey of the U.S. 50 largest cities, and the many planners I have had in my classes.

Click here to see my Best Practices Table

The Management Doctor

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May 2011 – Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

I have two documents in my library that I have never found a planner who either has or has seen these documents.

One is called Outrage and was a reprint of the June 1955 issue of the Architectural Review. “It uttered a prophecy of doom – the doom of an England reduced to universal Subtopia, a mean and middle state, neither town nor country, an even spread of abandoned aerodromes and fake rusticity, wire fences, traffic roundabouts, gratuitous notice-boards, car-parks and Things in Fields.” Could this be your community?

The second was called Counter Attack and divided the country into five of the following districts:

“METROPOLIS – bustle, teaming with people, everything larger than life. It is the heart of things so you must expect to be bandied about and harassed by the traffic, overawed by the buildings. It needs monumental scale and crowds – but not false monumentality and empty open spaces.”


“TOWN – human scale; full of life, not an underpopulated waste land; perpetually changing enclosure, not endless avenues. A town is a complex and compact pattern like the inside of a watch, and every change should aim to make the pattern richer and not to flow it apart. It lives by enclosure–the space bounded by walls and floor. The enclosure should never be naïve, inconclusive or broken open without good reason: this means a complex street pattern, rapid changes in width, maintaining of a continuous building line, and unobtrusive street furniture.”


“ARCADIA – a compromise for housing people near a town and still giving the effect of being rural; hence small scale, dainty, always keeping an illusion of being either in fairyland or in the country. The illusion and the miniature scale are vital; anything which explodes them must be rigidly excluded. Hence fairyland, which has a lot of houses in it, needs broken lines, thick lush planning, tiny winding roads, never a set of house-carcases jammed along a straight main road. For mock-countryside universal park-like planting, extreme camouflage for the houses and extreme neatness in the trim; never a bare-faced spatter over the landscape. Arcadia is obviously related to a town, but it should never become a choking ring of sprawl. It should be sited near the paren t where the landscape is most likely to aid the illusion.


“COUNTRY – genuinely countryside things need no illusion or affection – they can be as bold and brutal as possible. The vital thing in a rural landscape is continuity – freedom from unnecessary non-rural interruptions. These interruptions should really not be in the countryside at all: if they have to be they must be effaced from the view with all the skill of camouflage that we possess.”


“WILD – nature must win. If a landscape contains any man-made activity that isn’t cringing in subservience it ceases to be wild – no wire, no huts, no industry. Introduce even the simplest interruption into the view and you change it from being nature dominating man to man bawling at nature.”


The remainder of the document shows how all of this would look in the categories of:

  • Advertising
  • Building lines
  • Edges
  • Footpaths
  • Industry
  • Lettering
  • Military Installations
  • Monuments
  • Ornamental planting
  • Paint
  • Parks
  • Railings
  • Seats
  • Shelters
  • Site lines
  • Street furniture
  • Street lighting
  • Trees
  • Wire
  • Roads
  • Car parks

Does any of this sound like something you have seen recently in the planning literature?

Keep on planning.

The Management Doctor

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June 2011 – Disband Planning Department – Again!

The San Diego, California Mayor just disbanded the Planning Department (long range planning) and folded it into the Development Services Department (building permits and current planning). The Mayor hopes that the newly merged departments will operate as an efficient unit for a projected savings of $1 million annually. It seems like we have heard this song before. In San Diego, prior to 1995 planning was separate, the functions were merged for five years from 1995 to 2000, and then separated again in 2000.

I have seen this back and forth in a number of communities. The merging is generally done with the thought of efficiency and saving money, although sometimes with the thought of improving coordination and providing better service. The un-merging is generally done when people feel that long range planning is not getting enough attention.

Most of these efforts tend to fall short of their intentions and address the wrong issues. The real issues include:

  • Are the various functions operating as “silos” at the expense of other functions and creating confusion for customers and adding costs?
  • Is there duplication of functions which again adds cost and confusion?
  • Is there enough long range planning being accomplished?
  • Can you get an application approved in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Are development reviews carrying out the adopted plans from the long range functions?
  • Do the long range planners really understand what happens when the rubber meets the road, i.e. someone builds something, or, are they satisfied keeping the great plans on the shelf?

I have seen un-merged departments doing a terrible job with these questions. But, I have also seen merged departments doing a terrible job. The issue is not organization, but all the managers and staff seeing how their piece relates to the big picture.

All else being equal, I have strong feelings about this topic. Long range planning and current planning should be in the same organizational structure. I go even further and throw in building permits and code enforcement. Does this ever work? Take a look at San Jose, California that includes long range planning, current planning, building permits and code enforcement in the same Department. Or take a look at Calgary, Alberta that includes all of the above plus engineering.

A few years ago we completed a survey of the 50 largest U.S. cities. We found:

  • Only five of the cities split current planning and long range planning; Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego and Tulsa. The other 45 had them merged. I doubt that anyone would argue that the other 45 cities are doing a bad job of planning, although at least some likely are.
  • However, only a third of the cities had the building permit function merged with the long range and current planning functions.

I know this article is going to get me in trouble with my fellow San Diego planners who feel that the merger will be the death of San Diego planning. The real issue – is the Mayor and City Council giving enough attention and money to the planning function? Probably not – irrespective of the organizational structure.

Does any of this ring true for your community?

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

Last year, the long-range planning group and the transportation planning group were folded into one department with current planning, building permits, the permit center, code enforcement and our downtown parking program. It hasn’t really made a difference in cooperation and coordination, but I think that is because this city government has a culture of cooperation and coordination – even with the engineers. In my experience, the personalities and culture of the organization are more important than the organizational structure when it comes to coordinating efforts to review development proposals or interpret code to achieve long-range planning goals and policies. Like you, I have seen combined departments do a terrible job of coordinating and pulling together to achieve a goal just as I have seen separate departments do a good job of it.

Laura Hudson

City of Vancouver, WA

I appreciate your comments on this topic. I agree with you about “seeing the pieces fitting together.”  In Arlington, Texas, where I serve as the Community Development and Planning Director, our organization is comprised of a One Start Center (engineers, planners, examiners, real estate, health, and inspections), a Strategic Planning function (comprehensive planning, urban design, GIS, transportation), and a Grants Function (housing authority, federal grants). The planners, while having different responsibilities (current and longer range), function as a single team which tends to promote planning throughout the rest of the organization.  While this is a large organization, it is effective primarily through the integration and accountability of the entire functional teams. 


Jim Parajon

Arlington, TX

The other key issue in this case is that a non-planner has been made the director of the department.  I agree that merged departments are best, but the lead should be planning and the development decisions seen as the way to implement the plan.  This is less likely to occur if the director is not a planner.

Bruce Knight

Champaign, IL

Regarding combining long-range and short-range planning and building permits/inspections, the article notes the problem well. Few elected officials comprehend long-range planning, much less its importance. Long range planning is the basis for all the rest: everything else should implement the long-range plans. Unfortunately, comprehensive planning and their results are complex, identifying how multiple systems interact symbiotically: land use, water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, transportation – all of these at the local, regional, state, and federal scale. It’s more than most elected officials want to or are able to deal with. This is true at all levels of government I’ve served: federal, state, county, local. In politics, slogans play better than solutions, and most elected officials can’t understand that their “new” ideas have been analyzed for decades by numerous professions. Even a few planning management consultants have given them some thought!

Jeff Smyser

City of Lino Lakes, MN

We are facing similar questions – do we merge or not?  The biggest concern at the moment is do we have the funds for long-range planning projects? Therefore do we have the funds for long-range planners? The two divisions operate under the same Department and structure, but are separate within. There is no talk about merging them, but there is a great deal of cross training going on and long-range planners are spending some of their time processing current planning projects and therefore tapping one of the few sources of revenues that we have left.

Ben Kimball

Tulare County Resource Management Agency

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July 2011 – The Paperless Office for Development Review

You may recall that in prior emails we requested suggestions for communities that may be underway with electronic plan submittal and electronic plan check. Based on your input we developed the attached list of 100 communities. We sent a survey to these 100 and received 45 responses. Of these, 31 appear to be actively underway or working on getting underway.

Click here for the list of 100 communities.

Click here for the responses from the 31.

We continue to be convinced that over the next five years a high percentage of cities and counties will be underway with electronic submittals and electronic plan check. We hope you will find the attached survey of use.

If you know of other communities that we have not included in our list, please share those with us.

The Management Doctor

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August 2011 – Find Your Ukulele Moment

  • Are some of your talents hidden?
  • Are you giving enough time to the non-job parts of your life?
  • Do you have that idea that you never get around to pursuing?
  • What fun are you missing out on?
  • It’s time to find your Ukulele moment!

I’ve been playing the ukulele since the age of 13 – off and on; here and there – but nothing special. Then one night at my book club, one of the women told the story of an old ukulele in the back of her closet that her husband had found in a cab 50 years ago. I told her I’d like to see it at the next book club and then casually said, “I can teach anyone to play the ukulele in five minutes.” She said, “Prove it.” She brought the uke* to the next book club. Five minutes was all it took; she was hooked. She had not played a musical instrument her whole life, and suddenly the world of music opened up to her.

That started it. Two other members of the book club said they used to play the uke. Another asked me for her five minute lesson. I told the story to my office manager. We have been together for 7 years and never once talked about ukuleles. Like the first woman, she also had never done anything with a musical instrument and found a new excitement. She wanted her five minute lesson. And then it exploded. I now have 10 of those “five minute students” and we are pulling old ukuleles out of closets and buying new ones. We plan to perform at our annual Oktoberfest.

I am no longer a casual player but have a new love of life. In addition to the 10 of us, I go to two other uke groups. I’m even thinking of doing a You Tube video to demonstrate my five minute approach. Maybe some of you planners will check it out.

But that’s not my message. I am not here to sell you on playing the ukulele. What I want you to do is – FIND YOUR OWN UKULELE MOMENT!

The Management Doctor

aka The Five-Minute Ukulele Man

*I suggested she have this old uke appraised. It was appraised for $1,200. WOW – what’s in your closet!


Reader Responses

Thanks Paul for the great direction. It has been one of those months, quarters, years… I have wanted to get a bike and have been saying that for two years. You inspired me to make it this weekend! I’ll let you know.

Joseph Horwedel

City of San Jose

I too have a ukulele in the closet.  It was my grandfather’s. He use to play the uke and the banjo (I have the banjo in the closet too).  Years ago, I use to pick it up and tinker with tunes and attempted to read ukulele music books. But I have virtually no musical talent whatsoever. However, your story peaked my attention. Now I am anxious to see your You Tube video. Guess I’ll just have to dust off the old case, open it up, and attempt the ukulele again.

Great Info of the Month piece for August. Please do let us know when the You Tube video is up and running! Thank you!!

Michael Taylor

City of Gulfport Community Development Department

Thanks for the inspiration!

Peter Katich

City of Gig Harbor

I’m so used to hitting the “like” button and there wasn’t one.  Consider your article “liked.” 

We just started cycling.  We’re about to enter our first “century ride” not bad for a couch potatoe!

Toni Tisdale

Compass, Idaho

Thanks for that story. I have been working more on my ukulele moments since I retired from local government this past year and started doing some consulting, more volunteer work and other things. I think it is important to incorporate these aspects into our lives wherever and whenever we can.

I also heard from a former City Manager at an ICMA Nor-Cal social meeting earlier in the year who literally picked up a ukulele that he had played back in high school, started playing it and plays a lot now. He even did a song for our group.

Good luck with your YouTube video.

Art Henriques

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October 2011 – Please Shut Up!

An organization called Kinetix ( has published what they call, “The Idiot-Proof Coaching Tool for Managers.” Their approach is built on a lot of what I call common sense, but I find this is a tough area for most managers. Here are their six steps. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

  1. State – What specifically you have observed (or that the technology has boserved)
  2. Wait for a Response
  3. Remind them of the Goals within the area in question
  4. Ask Questions
  5. Agree Together
  6. Close Upbeat

Step #1 – State What You Have Observed. Clearly and briefly state what you have observed (or what has been observed by technology/a third party.) How do you do this? Give at least one brief example to reinforce the trend you are focusing on. Be sure to rehearse what you’re going to say, because practice is a key component of effectiveness in this step. But you have to do this part quickly – you’ve got a 30-second time limit in this step! Get in and get out!

Step #2 – Wait For a Response. After delivering your observation, stop talking and wait for a response. In other words, shut up. This step can be the toughest, especially with a quiet team member, but you don’t want to bail the team member out – you’ll limit the effectiveness of your session and your ongoing coaching relationship. Just stop talking and force them to respond.

Be prepared – you may have to step in and help the team member with a “bridge” if he/she doesn’t respond, but silence is key after delivering your observation. The only way to get true buy-in from the employee in question is to let them participate in the conversation.

Step #3 – Remind Them Of The Goal.Once the team member has responded, be ready to remind them of the goals in the coaching area you are focused on. Rehearsal is key here – don’t neglect your pre-coaching preparation. Focus not only on the goals for the team member, but how those goals are aligned with the overall goals of your company.

Step #4 – Ask Questions and Brainstorm. Asking questions is the second round of team member participation in the coaching process (Example – “What can you do differently moving forward to better meet the goal?”). These types of questions invite team members to brainstorm, and follow-up questions are usually necessary. It would be great to simply tell the team member what we need them to do (and that’s what most managers do) but research shows that approach is terrible and does not provoke behavior change.

Step #5 – Agree Together. This is a Closing Statement on what you agree to moving forward. Another way to think about this step is a “summary delivered by the manager” (Example: “So, we agree moving forward that you are going to…”). You’re going for closure and seeking agreement from the team member, regarding the change that you need in this step. The team member needs to be in agreement with the summary delivered and provide you with confirmation before you continue coaching.

Step #6 – Close Upbeat! Effective coaches tell team members that they can do it – even if they’re not sure. Closing on a positive note is a great way to transition from the agreement in step #5, and is more focused on the soft side. What does your soft close sound like? Great coaches sell the fact that they believe the person can raise their game and meet the requirement. It’s also the place where great coaches actually get discretionary effort, which is effort that team members don’t have to give, but do because you’ve motivated them and they trust you.

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November 2011 – Your Next Step – Make Yourself Indispensable!

Given the poor job market, you may think this is not a good time to think ahead. But, as a planner, you should be thinking ahead. I was struck by an article in the October 2011 Harvard Business Review, “Making Yourself Indispensable.”

In the article, the authors suggest that, “Doing more of what you already do well yields only incremental improvement. To get appreciable better at it, you have to work on complementary skills – what we call nonlinear development.” More specifically:

“Good leaders can become exceptional by developing just a few of their strengths to the highest level – but not be merely doing more of the same. Instead, they need to engage in the business equivalent of cross-training – this is, to enhance complementary skills that will enable them to make fuller use of their strengths. For example, technical skills can become more effective when communication skills improve, making a leader’s expertise more apparent and more accessible. Once a few of their strengths have reached the level of outstanding, leaders become indispensable to their organizations despite the weaknesses they may have.”

The authors identified 16 strengths for good managers as listed in the following matrix. Fill in five blanks for your competencies, passions, and organizational needs. Then pick one or two items you are not already competent in and go to work on these. If this turns you on, read the entire Harvard Business Review article. You should be subscribing to this publication anyway.

Make yourself indispensable,

The Management Doctor

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December 2011 – Privatization

We have just completed our first privatization study for a California city which has led us to think a bit more about this topic. It is time that you do the same!

Virtually all local governments are faced with budget problems and many are beginning to look at privatization of functions as a means of cost savings. The building permit function has been privatized for many years in a variety of communities. We are now also seeing talk of privatizing the planning function. A good strategy for you would be to learn more about this and get ahead of the curve before your elected officials come a calling.

Why Privatize?

There are a number of reasons that communities look to privatize services including:

• A desire for better quality work

• To hire specialized staff

• Difficulty in recruiting staff

• Political philosophy

• Fed-up with current staff

• Cost

The First Four

Communities have always used consultants for high quality work, specialized staff or where it was not possible to hire needed staff. I won’t address these in this article and want to mostly talk about cost. However, it is important to not dismiss too lightly the topic of “fed-up with current staff.” Additionally, the national political mood has many officials who believe that private is always better than public. I will leave that political dialogue for others.

Fed-Up With Current Staff

Communities often use reorganization of functions as a way to remove managers or staff. This is a “chicken” way to do it rather than address management and staff issues head on. The same approach is now being used in relation to privatization. If your community is talking about cost savings, make certain that is not really a “fed-up with current staff” issue. You may be the world’s best planner, but take a hard look at yourself, is it time to move on for the benefit of the organization as well as for yourself?

We were once hired by a city to supplement its staff by adding one planner. When another planner left they asked us to add one more. When the director left, they asked us to take over the entire department, managing both our staff and the remaining city staff. The city manager simply didn’t want to deal with all the baggage that he seemed to get with staff planners and planning directors. Think about it?


The main reason communities are looking at privatization is cost. Cost comparisons are going to vary substantially from community to community. For the community we just studied, we actually, and surprisingly, found that if the same number of net hours being worked by city employees were worked by the consultants, the consultants would actually cost more.

However, this is only part of the picture. Under other assumptions, consultants can be less expensive than government staff. Factors include:

Employee Benefits. Benefits for government employees are often higher than those for private consultants. Next time your government is looking at salaries or benefits, take a good hard look. Fighting for increased benefits may actually be shooting yourself in the foot. It is a fact that many governments cannot sustain the current level of employee benefits. I do have to laugh at the politicians that like to lay all the blame for this on the employees. Who voted for these benefits in the first place? Maybe you should become an active participant in this debate!

Salary. While private sector salaries are often higher than those of government employees, at least on an hourly basis, this is not always the case. In today’s economy with the high unemployment rates, including planners, salaries in the private sector are becoming more competitive.

Efficiency. Efficiency may be the most important factor. I won’t argue that private planners are better or more efficient than government planners. Whether this is true or not will be highly dependent on the local situation. However, there may be a different side to efficiency. Think of these factors:

  • Poor Employees. It is not unusual in government departments to find one or more non-productive employees that should, but have not, been terminated. The private sector tends not to have this problem.
  • Right Skills. The current government employee mix may have the wrong skills. Some staff may be in higher paid positions than actually needed for the work.
  • Right Numbers. The government office may be over-staffed for actual needs. This may be particularly true as development activity has decreased. The private firm is in a better position to staff according to actual needs
  • .Bottom Line. Because of the factors outlined above, private firms suggest that when they have gone into a local jurisdiction, they can use 15 to 25% less staff and produce the same amount of work.


I don’t believe that privatization is better than the community having its own staff. However, I also don’t believe that having its own staff is always better than privatization. I actually prefer having a blended staff with a base staff of government employees supplemented with private consultants.

However, my main message to you is, don’t get caught up short. Be a planner!

The Management Doctor

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