Technology for Sharing Ideas and Best Practices

Dear Management Doctor,

I am looking into a planning administration-related question on behalf of a Planning Advisory Service subscriber from Toronto.

She would like to know if and how other planning departments use information technology to share ideas and best practices among staff in the department. An example might be a database profiling projects that staff have worked on highlighting what worked well and what did not.

I’ve surveyed some other PAS subscribers and it seems like not too many are using software platforms or other tools in this way – but I wanted to reach out to you and your readers to ask if this is something you are familiar with. I did see the question in your collection about database software, but this is a slightly different angle on that question. Any information would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,
Ann Dillemuth, AICP
Research Associate
Planning Advisory Service

Dear Ann,

Good to hear from you. This is an interesting question and I am not aware of much either. Hopefully my readers can share some ideas. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Another Canadian community, Calgary Planning Department, has one of the most intensive data systems of any community I have worked with. In addition to the usual data monitoring projects, they have an extensive program giving guidance to staff to research and answer all kinds of questions.
  2. A high percent of communities these days have some type of permitting software. These provide information on timelines and performance standards.
  3. I am not an expert in social media but have the impression that a number of planning departments are active in this area with blogs and other approaches. APA may have more on this topic.
  4. I have suggested, with little success, that departments should review projects a year after they are constructed to see what went right and what went wrong. Did the mitigation techniques work? Were there unintended consequences? Etc.

Best Wishes.

the Management Doctor


Responses, Use of IT for Intradepartmental Best-Practice Sharing:

Carmen Hindson, Calgary: I was able to gather some high level information on the different tools and technology that we are using in planning to share ideas and best practices. I hope this helps – please let me know if you need me to dig up any further details on any of these!

We have a system called Robo that helps us to keep current and share information to front line staff on processes and procedures. SharePoint is used extensively for project information such as project health check, lessons learned and best practices. Learning Management System to instil best practices through learning and development of other staff. eVoice uses collaboration tools with our customers to gauge potential uptake and/or thought to ideas or new service offerings. Customer centric and human based design program that engages customer and industry in the service offerings of our Business Units. The external clients actually have a hand in designing systems that they will use to access our services. Subscriptions to Muniscope, ICURR (Intergovernmental Committee on Urban and Regional Research) and NextCity. These subscriptions keep us up to date on best practices and innovation beyond Calgary and are shared with the management team.

Pat Doane, Ruston, LA:

  1. Bluebeam review for staff markups of PDF plans; each team member (includes building official, engineering, addressing, mapping, electric, sewer, trash, water, zoning, even external service providers) has a different color assigned for markups. Helps identify conflicts between different internal requirements before meeting with applicant. Process also documents problems and requests for changes to plans. Same platform used by State Fire Marshal so expedites approvals requiring their input.
  2. All cases and detailed attribute data added to GIS database for viewing on maps. GIS is used to automate notifications to nearby parcel owners and to document actions such as revocations, annexations, and zoning changes.
  3. MS Outlook is used to communicate with departments reviewing applications.  This includes initial applications, interim meetings, and scheduling of one-stop-shop meetings with applicants, in which all departments are present to answer applicant questions and review project in detail.
  4. Various procedures are documented as step by step directions for staff, including advertising requirements for all types of actions, annexation processes, street revocation processes.
  5. All files are kept digitally with the Case number first in the file name.  Shortcuts are added to group similar items, such as annexations or conditional use cases.
  6. Some GIS layers include links to photographs (billboard signs and substandard structures, for example).

Derek Burr, Cape Coral, FL: If you view your question more broadly in terms of how are the City of Cape Coral utilizes information technology to improve our permitting and review processes, there are a number of examples that Staff can provide, which are listed below. These process improvements, in most cases, do not directly measure or evaluate best practices, but do have best practice implications. Lastly, many of the City’s process improvements have focused on reducing steps and decreasing permitting time which is not necessarily synonymous with best practices in planning.

Examples of process improvements involving information technology that we have implemented:

Developing standard operating procedures for many planning functions. Establishing maximum review times for several categories of reviews and tracking review times utilizing CRW. (CRW is actually “TrakIT”, which is an application that is used for permitting, code cases, projects, etc. HTE is a similar program.) Utilizing CRW to monitor the amount of time taken at various steps in the review process for public hearing and PDP projects. Utilizing Chronology in CRW to document phone calls and emails concerning projects. Requiring mandatory meetings with developers following a second review of a PDP project to resolve outstanding issues. Routing public hearing cases electronically to City staff for review. Recording discussions held at PDP advisory meetings and downloading the audio files for archival purposes. Placing PDP and public hearing applications on-line. Posting public hearing packet information on-line, including staff reports, for the pu blic. Placing QR bars on public hearing signs posted on property to provide a direct link to public hearing packet information for smart phone users. Recording resolutions/ordinances electronically with Lee County instead of requiring the applicant to record these documents themselves (in progress). Utilizing software to document the number of customers served along with wait times for customers visiting the Building and Zoning Counters. Formalizing the review process for several administrative requests to facilitate the routing, tracking and archiving of these cases. Utilizing Survey Monkey to collect information from the public in identifying critical issues to include within the City’s Evaluation and Appraisal Report.

Amy Connolly, Tinley Park, IL: We’re pretty low tech about best practices among staff. We have the following:

Several boards in the department where we pin up projects we’re working on or have worked on. We talk about these projects “around the water cooler.” (We also have a “wall of shame” where we jokingly blame each other for the really horrible things that happen on sites….like the plastic siding that went on a historical home or a sign that’s awful…..) A “research” file on our server where we put information we gather on projects. We identify general topics and drop articles, PDFs, documents, etc. into the research file. We seek that out before we seek out other sources. In December each year, we take our list of projects that were built that year and go on an “end of year” wrap up tour where we visit the sites and talk about what really worked and what didn’t work. We go to lunch a couple times a year with planners from the surrounding area to meet and talk about our projects. After lunch, we might spread plans out on th e table and review site plans with each other.

We only have three full time professional planners on staff here, so it’s rather informal. We have talked about implementing a Microsoft Share Point site for our department and certainly a “best practices” board could be part of that.

Arthur Jackson, Washington, DC: We recently have begun to review old planned unit development applications to review what went well or should have been done differently but not in a systematic manner.

While working in the Fairfax County, VA Department of Planning and Zoning in the 1990’s, zoning staff developed a database to keep track of agency interpretations of the regulations. Enter a certain zoning provision and it would recall all related interpretations in the database. We included all zoning interpretation filed prior to the project and I understand it has been kept up to date, so this database should be pretty extensive by now. I think this provides a good example. I also understand the planner who helped build the original database was teaching computer programming in the Tidewater area.

Michel Wigney, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: I don’t know if it’s quite what you’re looking for, but our planning department (and, indeed, the entire agency) relies predominantly on a program called Accela. We have both an in-house and publicly available version of the program to better facilitate our agency functions with the needs of the public. Here is the link to the public database: https://aaweb.trpa.org/ (the link is through our website, hyperlink in the first line of this page: http://www.trpa.org/permitting/parcel-records/ ).

The in-house version allows for planner notes on specific project so that others within the office can see details, pick up where one planner left off, or offer suggestions (this last one is more in theory than in use). Additionally, our planning department has a weekly staff meeting where planners with individual project issues may seek suggestions and commentary from others.

Theresa Avance, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: We use Accela for tracking projects, but still use meetings and interpretation memos for sharing new practices. We are trying to get away from paper, but still working on it.

Paul DiGiuseppe, Austin, TX: The simple answer is we really don’t have a good IT solution.  We use SharePoint and Google Drive and (which works much better than SharePoint).  According to our IT lead: “This is an area where we are still lacking.  The PDR sharepoint site is/was intended to be a platform for sharing information and best practices (SOPs).  There are publications that come from various sources that are distributed via email.  Also, the City will be launching a new intranet site in fiscal ’15 each department will be able to utilize.  More things are in the works via the newly established Training Team, but that again is future rather than current.” A potentially helpful website is the Sustainable Communities Learning Network which is a clearinghouse of information.  We haven’t used it yet but have begun internal discussions to see if it has a usefulness to us.

Carol Haywood, Austin: I can’t think of anything we are doing in our Planning Department that would qualify as a good idea for your request. Quite a few years ago we started a notebook where we kept ideas for public meetings/group exercises and the results /comments on how it went. Very non-tech.

Emily Liu, Louisville: This is an interesting subject.  We are thinking about using SharePoint but have not started yet. I would like to hear what other planning departments are doing.

Mike Hill, Louisville: We use Hansen permit tracking software, but honestly it is not very helpful when it comes to researching projects and it certainly doesn’t track best practices.

Darrell Howard, Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham: We use Microsoft Sharepoint to share ideas. We have a page dedicated to the planning staff.  I also have a number of “mayvens.” That is, individuals who find information and share it.

Jason Davenport, Lowndes County, GA: We use Microsoft SharePoint and Cisco Jabber to help bolster and aid overall communication and coordination but nothing best-practice specific.

Rosana Juestel, Columbus, GA: We don’t really have an internal software to share ideas here. We do have a software called Energov that we use to create plans and permits and share communication, add comments and so forth. I was also part of the project to implement that software and we used SharePoint. I know other companies used it too for several projects and activities.

Lauren Matzke, Clearwater, FL: We aren’t doing anything yet, but I would be interested in benefiting from this question being asked as well. We are just forming an Innovation committee and are in the midst of discussing how to solicit ideas and in what manner should/can we share information (and are there “innovative” approaches beyond the static website).

Linnea O’Neill, Northfield, IL:  We do not use anything to track ‘best practices’ but we do summarize our Plan Commission and Architectural Commission cases at the end of the year and share with our Commissions. I am a member of the Municipal Design Review Network  (The Chaddick Institute, Chicago) and the meetings provide a great opportunity to share amongst planners of other municipalities ideas and best practices.

Jeff Marino, Champaign IL: Our department does not have any software that would track processes or practices. We mostly rely on institutional knowledge. We have files that give a history of each project, but we don’t really quantify the practices that went into the process.

Jennifer White, Chesapeake, VA: Our department shares information the old fashioned way – by informal and formal meetings and discussions. Of course, we do have templates for staff reports, etc. that get updated and e-files on examples of reports, etc. that have worked well in the past, but no earth-shattering use of technology.

Lucie Ghioto, Kissimmee, FL: I would be very interested to hear what the responses are out there.  Our department has struggled with a way to set up a “best practices” guide, internally and externally. Currently we simply rely on Excel matrices to track specific instances/interpretations and have a network folder that serves as a dumping ground for plans, images and ideas for best practices. Nothing remotely organized or formalized, I’m afraid.

Stacy Snell, New Braunfels, TX: The closest we come is keeping an electronic copy of articles, papers and presentations by topic. An electronic library of sorts. I would be interested in how others track the “best practices” of planning efforts.

Aimee Nassif, Chesterfield, MO: We do not have such a tool. We have several databases to track permits, plats, and plan approvals, but nothing which tracks best practices or anything.  Sounds like a very interesting and great idea though.

Jake Reilly, St. Paul, MN: We have “team” meetings and meet in person to talk about “best practices” etc…within subgroups, but are not using any technology at this time.