Staffing Levels

Dear Management Doctor,

Good afternoon. I attended one of your sessions several years ago and have been a Planning Director for almost twelve years for two local governments. I am looking for some work and/or direction on staffing level analysis and justification for small communities (30k + population). Can you point me in good direction?

Thank you.
Christopher M. Fletcher, AICP

Dear Christopher,

Good question but difficult to answer. As a starter, look at my ABZs of Planning Management book page 314 for how to do a billable hours analysis, page 314 & 315 for setting staffing for development review, and page 316 for staffing for planning programs.

This kind of analysis work is fine for medium to large sized organizations but can be difficult for smaller organizations like yours. As such there are other factors to be considered as shown on page 319. Eventually, the manager has to use his or her gut to arrive at a position. Here are two recent examples from my consulting:

  • A California City with a 110,000 population had 0.8 staff doing long range planning. We didn’t need a study to say they needed at least 2 or 3 long range planners.
  • A large Kentucky joint city-county government with over a million population split off long range planning and had four planners. My gut simply said not enough.

Here are a number of ways to look at your situation:

  1. City Comparisons
    Comparing your staffing levels with comparable cities may give you a place to start. These comparisons are often useful for elected officials and citizens. However, I don’t feel they really mean anything without looking closely at the community, its level of development activity, and its long range planning needs. You will never see these comparisons in our studies. But, get some data, if it makes your case go ahead and use it. Send me the results.
  2. Current Planning
    The amount of staff you need for current planning should relate directly to the volume of applications you receive. Do the kind of analysis in my book, page 314 & 315. The biggest problem with this is deciding how many hours on the average it should take to process each type of application. This will take some trial and error but you should have this kind of data anyway in order to manage. You need to be careful with this one. In my seminars, I go around the room and ask how many people each person manages and how many are in the department. In one class the planner from Beverly Hills, as I recall, said 30, which shocked everyone. This may or may not be the right number but communities like Beverly Hills and similar communities often have complex requirements that require more staff. This is why community to community comparisons can be very misleading. We found a similar situation in Austin, Texas that we are now reviewing. Having worked in 10 other Texas communities, we assumed that Austin’s development process would be like much of Texas. However, what we found is that Austin is actually more similar to California than it is to Texas.
  3. Long Range Planning
    For long range planning you need to look at what kind of projects are needed for your community. Is the Comprehensive Plan up to date, neighborhood plans, codes, etc. And then what kinds of special projects would you like to do like a downtown plan, corridor plan, sustainability study, etc. You should make a comprehensive list, estimate the amount of staff time each project would require, and then prepare a work plan. Have your elected official look at and even adopt this, see page 316 for an example. The biggest problem you will likely have with this is not knowing how much labor is needed for each project. You will need some trial and error here but you need to learn how to do it. Most communities ask consultants to do this all the time. They want fixed fee proposals which mean we need to know the amount of labor each project would take. It would be nice if they would give us a time and material contract and then we could simply bill as needed – not likely to happen.
  4. Other Items
    In small communities, it is not unusual that the planning department has other types of projects like downtown parking, CIP reviews, a park plan, staffing to a board, or whatever. In my classes, I recommend that the Planning Department become known as the “can do” department, so simply take whatever they want to give to you and produce. You need to set staffing numbers for all of these activities. I was working with an Indiana community with a staff of 12 that had problems finding the planning director they wanted. Finally, an outstanding planner whose wife had grown up in the community agreed to take the job on one condition. He wanted $100,000 in unspecified consulting money each year. He believed in being a can-do department and needed this to be successful. He got it. Not an easy sell but great if you can get it.

Hope this helps, let me know how things work out and maybe some of our emailers will have additional suggestions.

the Management Doctor

P.S. One of the best planning departments I ever worked for had only one planner (the Planning Director) and 20 hours a week clerical help. This director brought in several million dollars in grants, had downtown revitalization underway, joint park program with schools, traffic calming street construction, etc. Sometimes you need more staff. But don’t get hung up on it.