Planning Staff per Thousand Population

Dear Management Doctor,

I’m working on a mid-year budget review and work plan for my department.   I was looking for a statistic of recommended full-time planners per 1000 population (APA or other agency).  With the change in the economy, planning departments have shrunk.   Is there a number or rule of thumb you use as a general base line or metric?

My City has about ____ thousand households in about ___ square miles and urbanizing along all of its major corridors.

Appreciate some information.

Best Regards,


Dear Anonymous,

I don’t know of this type of information and would question its reliability even if it exists. You might try the League Cities. Nevertheless, your city manager or city council may think this kind of data is useful. Check out a number of comparable cities. If it shows you have less staff than others, you could use the data even though it may not be accurate.

There are simply too many variables from city to city to have a useful measure. States with lots of regulations like California will have more planners then say Texas. Other variables will be the rate or volume of growth taking place.

Using California as example, places like Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills tend to have a high number of planners because the regulations and expectations of the community are very high.

In our studies we approach this issue with some detailed analysis. We normally split the departments functions into two major pieces: the development process, and long-range planning. Some departments also have other functions and these need to be analyzed separately.

Start with the development process. List all of the processes, list the average number of applications per year for each process, then estimate the average hours it takes a planner for each item. Multiply all of this and divide by available hours per planner (billable hours) and you will have an estimate of the number of planners needed.

For long-range planning, I start by developing a work program. Make a list of all the long-range planning items that you think the community needs. Estimate the number of hours that each will require. Then decide how fast you want to accomplish the list. For example, say you want to accomplish 25% each year. Simply add up the hours you need and divide by available hours per planner (billable hours) and you will have the number of staff you need.

Look at Chapter 21, Budget, in my book, The ABZs of Planning Management to see how this works in detail. Also, look under Budgets using the search engine on our website.

City managers and elected officials like to see the numbers and I found the system described above to be highly effective.

If you need more, feel free to call me for additional free advice.

Good luck,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I agree with your response. Not easy to compare different cities. Our town signed up to do the ICMA performance measures and we tried to compare ourselves to other cities of similar size, but we are growing rapidly so we have more development review and zoning functions going on and less code enforcement than the other cities we were compared to. In the long run, it wasn’t worth it. The approach you describe – to analyze the work that needs to be done and figure out the staffing hours needed to accomplish it – is the better way to go.

Sarah S. More, FAICP

I agree with your answer.  Burbank had an interesting response to this challenge of creating comparables.  All departments used the same eight cities for collecting data for comparison.  They were in the same general region, about the same size, and had most of the same issues. Council recognized these cities as “peers” and was responsive for comparable data.  Burbank’s city policy was not to be at the lead of the pack, just somewhere in the middle.

Carol B.