Planner to Population Ratio

Dear Management Doctor:

What is considered a healthy or reasonable planner to population ratio? The City I work for is an urbanized city that is undergoing a lot of redevelopment with a population of 87,000 and one Assistant, one Associate, one Senior Planner and a Planning Director position that is being eliminated for a Community Development Director who will oversee four departments.

Thanks!

Helen

Dear Helen:

That is an excellent question but unfortunately there is not an excellent answer. In our consulting practice we are often asked to benchmark one city vs. others including planner to population ratios. We always try to resist doing so. When the client, in effect, insists we do benchmarking, we always provide numerous footnotes explaining why the data isn't useful.

There is a big difference in the number of planners needed in a growing city vs. one mostly built out. Daytime vs. nighttime population can also be a big factor. Many other factors also impact the size of the staff. For example, does the planning department handle redevelopment, housing, CDBG, economic development, transportation, design review, historic preservation, parks, code enforcement, annexations or other activities? Also, are ordinances and plans up to date? We have worked with planning departments that handle some or all of these activities.

In my national class, The Complete Management Course For Planning Directors, I ask students to introduce themselves along with the size of the organization and the population of the community they work for. Approximately 1,000 students have now taken this course and the students and I are continually amazed at how planner to population ratios vary.

Instead of trying to do a planner to population ratio, I suggest a different approach. In our consulting we try to look at each function in the department and determine how much labor is devoted to that function. Then the community can decide if they want more, less or about the same effort for that function than they are currently getting. We also often throw in our own opinion on the subject. The same analysis can be used to make estimates of how efficient staff are for each function or process. You could then try to benchmark one of the sub-functions against other communities. However, even here, make certain you are comparing apples to apples.

The Insurance Companies of America use ratios of staff to number of permits or inspections for the building code function. While this is easier to do than planning, given the nature of building codes, even this can be misleading. We work with some communities that believe in a thorough job of building inspection and others are more lax. The more thorough, the more staff you need. The same thing applies to planning.

As a generalization, you will find more planners per population in states like California, Florida, Oregon and Washington than, for example, the mid-west.

Finally, you indicate that you will end up with three planners for your population of 87,000. If I had to guess, I'd say you certainly are not overstaffed and may be understaffed.

Don't let the ratios fool you.

The Management Doctor

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