Planning, by virtue of its very nature is an intrinsically technical discipline. At university you learn, amongst others things, about Ebenezer’s garden city and, although interesting, once you finish your degree you realise, it doesn’t actually help you overly with the day to day grind of development assessment or strategic planning – that indeed comes as on the job training.

In practice, in some local government environments, planners who have been around the longest, by default, rise to line or middle management. Management not leadership. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – almost unconsciously, the ‘technocrats’ are rewarded. Planners are typically recognised or celebrated by their peers for their technical achievements, not their cultural change management or leadership prowess. Why is this?

There is currently lots of commentary and blogs out there in relation to technology and planning – Eplanning, mobile apps, social media etc. This is a fantastic tool to add value to planning, but it is not and will not be the silver bullet. Leadership will change behaviours and is people orientated – technology is just a tool that will never replace the human element.

Who is specifically talking about leadership in planning? It’s the modern day Cinderella, doomed to be locked away missing the ball to scrub the floors. It has the potential to totally transform the industry; it just needs to be given the opportunity to shine. Culture is the catchphrase of the day, and then it passes with little or no consequence…..

What makes a good planner? A topic PIA has recently put out there. Do we as a profession, reward the introvert planner who can recite precisely clause 423 A(c) of the ‘such and such’ Act? Do we acknowledge the planner who is responsive, decisive, and lets you know where you stand, but can easily look up that section of the ‘such and such’ Act if needed? I know what I value more.

The resultant is the planning profession as a whole suffers, and leaves its reputation sadly, in tatters. As controversial as the statement may be – local government has a reasonable percentage of planners who have no or little concept of genuine customer service, industry/market demands and communication skills. The thought of phoning an applicant to sort out an issue as opposed to a formal ‘stop clock further info letter’ to some just seems prosperously crazy. Where in any other customer service industry, is it ok to be told I am on holidays for 2 weeks and while I am away nothing happens with your DA or Planning Proposal, or that planning duty hours closed at 12 noon and please call back tomorrow? The planning paradigm needs to change – the industry needs to reinvent itself to be customer service first then technical planning second, not the mindset, I am the planner so ‘when I am ready’. This can be done without compromising the values and ideals of town planning.

This issue is exacerbated by the lack of leadership. With leadership comes accountability. With accountability, comes a high performing and engaged culture and ultimately high customer satisfaction. With technical planners typically supervising/mentoring technical planners, it almost becomes a generational cycle of poverty, and any impartiality or ‘new thinking’ is dissolved. Unfortunately, the local government assumption is often that the technical planner is always right and it’s ok that they didn’t call you back for a week or so, or that they won’t vary a Development Control Plan by 100mm. The planners are often left at wheel on auto pilot, the skilled supervision, giving planners a ‘license’…. missing in action.

There are two fundamental skills in planning that make factory floor planners into spectacular professionals. Firstly, this is knowing how and when to readily and legally use your discretion and not be crippled by risk (as black and white is safe and anyone can do that). In every decision there is a risk reward equation. Conservative planners may defer the hard decision, putting it in the ‘too hard basket’, yet indecision is the worst of all options. With private practice, the risk reward dynamic can be lucrative, however what’s the risk reward ‘shot in the arm’ in public service. It needs personalities that genuinely enjoy and feel gratification for helping people and getting great community results.

Secondly, creating a culture of genuine commitment to customer service. These are not separate to planning – they are leadership qualities within planning and the two need to be acquainted more often. We get lost in this argument about who is the customer, the wider community or the applicant. If we are even asking that question we need to pause and reassess.

What are the characteristics that make a good technical planner an all round great planner? How do we go from ok to exceptional? It’s how successfully the planner can communicate – whatever it is they are trying to achieve. It’s the planner that thrives on the relationships and interactions with their customers, not because it’s a job but because they actually enjoy it.

With this leadership based approach, the mindset is different. Who has the conviction to challenge traditional ways of thinking? Do we sit in silence from fear of being ostracised? Everyone now talks about common sense, or pragmatic planning – but they are just words that many say but few back up with actions. It’s like the Council that is self-proclaimed ‘open for business’ but they couldn’t make your DA process slower or more costly if they tried, then helplessly claim to be victims of a system and legislation they can’t control. I think we should call that out for what it is – there is always scope and influence to allow reasonable planning decisions to be made. This can’t be confused with situations when planning professionals disagree on merit – that happens lots and that’s okay.

We need bold leaders in the planning profession during this exciting time of change. Leaders that need to demand we ‘get over’ ourselves a bit – that’s what differentiates planners from some other disciplines! Egos get in the way of why we signed up to be planners in the first place – to get great built environment outcomes and to make a difference helping people in the community in which we live.

What excites your customers is certainly not technical planning components, rather it’s the softer people side of things, communication, which planners are notoriously not strong in – how do we change this? Are we asking our planners, in addition to the planning technical skills they have, what do they need in their ‘bag of tricks’ to be the best in their field? Let’s have that conversation as an industry and develop accreditation around the ‘complete package’. We need leadership to stand up and have our industry known for more than just technical planning values that the average person struggles to comprehend – it’s our obligation to assign planning a clear meaning to these people.

Most people know what planners don’t do as opposed to what planners ‘actually’ do – that in itself is a pretty significant indicator. The divide between private and public planners appears to be growing exponentially. The only way to reduce this disparity is for a conscious effort and strategies across the industry and this only comes with leadership. It’s not just me, everyone is talking about the same thing, yet collectively, talk is just what we do. If the dog keeps chewing your shoes, you either move the shoes or get rid of the dog – we are just buying new shoes and letting them get chewed over and over.

Every time you talk to a consultant planner they freely offer their latest horror story – and lets be honest consultants are not totally innocent in this equation, they typically don’t go looking for conflict, quite simply it’s not in their or their clients’ interests. These so called ‘horror stories’ happen every day across our great state and planning system and the current culture of acceptance just continues to feed them. The big loser is both the local economy and the land owner at the end of the day. When the costs and studies required to get a development approved are more than the value of the development itself, you know things are terminal.

With the missing link of leadership ingrained into everyday planning we can make steps towards ripping this band aid off, hairs and all. Leadership that does not shy away from the authentic conservations because they can be awkward, leadership that holds people to account, leadership that supports professional planning and great built outcomes. Let’s connect the missing link.