Staffing Levels

Dear Management Doctor: 

I am hoping you can point me in the right direction: What information/research is available on bench marking criteria that is used to set staffing levels in municipal planning or community development departments? Specifically, I would be interested in mid-size cities charged with responsibilities relating to current planning, advance planning, regional transportation planning, economic development, administration of CDBG grants, and building permits and inspections.


Mary L Holton, AICP

Dear Mary,

My short answer is none!

This is the kind of questions City Managers and elected officials like to ask. It is also the kind of data Planning Directors want to have to try to justify staffing levels or increased staffing. You could try to do some comparisons with other communities that have similar characteristics to yours but it would still likely be apples and oranges. However, if you try this and it serves your purpose, go ahead and see if you can sell it.

Every community is different and every function is different. Let’s take a few examples.

  1. Current Planning
    How many applications do you get a year by each type of application? How complex is your ordinance and reviews? Set an average time for each review and you can do a mathematical calculation.
  2. Advance Planning
    How much advance planning do you want to do or does the community need? Is your General Plan and Zoning Ordinance up to date. Do you need corridor studies or neighborhood studies? If I need to make a seat of the pants argument, I like to say at least a third of your budget should be for advance planning.
  3. Regional Transportation Planning
    This one can be all over the landscape. Are you the federally certified transportation agency?
  4. Economic Development
    I see communities have only one person in this function, others dozens.
  5. CDBG
    How many grants are you getting? Again, I see communities that only have one part time person doing this, others dozens.
  6. Building Permits and Inspections
    Plan check will depend on the codes you are using and how detailed a plan check you want. Normally inspectors should be doing 10 to 15 per day.

You will find a few other ideas on how to calculate staffing levels on our website search engine at and also in my book, The ABZ of Planning Management.

If you or my emailers come up with a good answer, please share it with me.

Best wishes,
The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I sat and wrote several paragraphs agreeing with your answer to Mary Holton about staffing levels, but I dropped it as I think my City Manager said it far better than I could. Follow the first link.,0,2629499.story

Jim Campbell

FYI – there have been a couple of studies of staffing arrangements for Metropolitan Planning Organizations. 

Staffing and Administrative Capacity of MPOs

MPO Facts Sheet - Spr2011

Beth Alden

I would think of your task in terms of projects and operations. The difference is that projects have an end date and operations do not. As the doctor says, operations can be forecasted in terms of workload and staffed accordingly. In this hopper I would put current planning, permits and inspections and code enforcement.

For economic development and long-range planning, there is no way to set force structure independent of the question about what you want to do. To answer the force structure questions, you need to think about work program first. Frankly, no one values long-range planning for its own sake. I don’t, and I’m a long-range planner. They greatly value solutions to problems that long-range planning can help tackle. I think you start by engaging your council with the question of what they want to accomplish and get them and the larger community engaged in a conversation about work program.

Getting buy-off on work program does several good things for you:

  1. Planning gets to showcase itself in terms of the solutions it can offer. Rather than talking about another drain on the general fund, you are talking about what we want to accomplish.
  2. It disciplines the leadership to think about the force structure and expectations as linked. You want more output, we need more people.
  3. The conversation about work program helps assure that you have some up-front buyoff and a set of expectations about any new project your department undertakes. I recently saw a presentation about a really great planning project that a community undertook with a federal grant. It was great work. The staff went out and got the grant, hired a consultant who did a great job. The elected officials took one look at it and said hell no, not in my town. Up front buy in helps you assure that you don’t take on projects that you don’t have the votes for, at least at the conceptual level.
  4. You get your leadership thinking about what they want to do. This helps the community as a whole take the initiative. Without that, your shop is likely to chase whatever new idea or random complaint gets the council’s ear.

I’d say start by researching ways to scope and resource planning projects and then build them up based on a work program.

Dave Anderson

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