Implementing Planning Reform Amid Great Disruption

Guest blog written by Oliver Luckhurst-Smith

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

South Australia is one of the most affordable and liveable places in the world, with its capital, Adelaide, ranking the world’s 10th most liveable city according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Adelaide’s unique colonial design, with grid-pattern streets and lush belt of continuous make it an enviable destination to live and visit.

Despite Australia being ranked as a Top 20 Easiest Economy to do Business in, and Adelaide being the most competitive city in Australia to do business in, South Australia is currently in a sluggish state, with some of the highest unemployment in the country and an ageing population.

To counteract this lag behind other states, the South Australian Government is pursuing a Growth State agenda to increase the population, foster a skilled workforce and entice new industry to the state. While much of this is being completed in collaboration with the private sector, the Government is also putting an emphasis on becoming a low-cost jurisdiction; removing red-tape and streamlining existing services.

One addressable area is through simplifying and modernising the planning system, and is a policy area has piqued my interest for a number of years as an Advisor to the Lord Mayor of Adelaide.

Anyone needing to use the planning system in South Australia, whether it is because they are seeking to extend their home, convert a disused office building for their retail business, or build a multipurpose facility, must presently navigate up to 27,000 pages of planning rules, across 500 residential zones, with some 2,500 combinations of zones, overlays and spatial layers.

This causes issues not only for applicants, but for the bureaucrats at state and local government level who need to assess these development applications.

As evidenced through media reports, one council was found to take up to 50 days to approve minor developments such as garden sheds and pergolas. Worse, in some instances, a planning application to change land use could take up to 20 weeks for approval.

While interpreting a large volume of regulations and overlays is not only frustrating for users of the planning system, it is also very resource intensive for the agencies who have to make determinations. It becomes self-evident then that this is not an efficient system in the 21st century.

Efforts to modernise the planning system began in earnest in 2014, with the former State Government commissioning the Expert Panel on Planning Reform. In turn, this led to an act of parliament which was set to completely overhaul the existing legislation, the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016. Contained within the act was a requirement to completely place all 27,000 pages of planning rules and replace it with a modern, ePlanning solution by 1 July 2020.

While it was clear early on that this would be an ambitious task for the state government, by 2019 it was looking doomed to failure; too few of the replacement policies had been shown publicly, the ePlanning solution had not been built, let alone tested, and many of the contractors brought on to assist the task were complaining about workload and lack of leadership from senior bureaucrats.

As a tertiary player to the planning reforms (Councils are required to assess and implement planning developments, but the overarching policies are set by the state government) when the opportunity arose to undertake the Implementing Public Policy Course in 2020, it did not take me very long to choose what my problem project would be; correcting the Risk of failure in the State Planning Reforms.

Given the impacts on working environments due to COVID-19, 2020 was already going to be a difficult year to devise and implement policy. Nonetheless, it presented an opportunity to learn and trial new ideas and, in many ways, is the perfect environment for practicing the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) process as taught by Professor Matt Andrews.

While many agencies seek to deconstruct a problem before devising solutions, the time meaningfully spent deconstructing and then allocating causes along a fishbone diagram was helpful to me in quantifying the problem at hand, while making pathways for solutions or ‘points of entry’ much easier to identify.

Early into the PDIA journey, the state government acknowledged the difficulties in reaching the legislated deadline and sought to allow themselves further time for implementation. Initially, September 2020 was mooted.

In further breaking down the problems and applying the principles of AAA (Ability, Acceptance and Authority to Act), I estimated that the local government sector (Councils) had a lot of ability to help solve the ongoing issues relating to planning reform, however they did not have the authority to act and had not been actively engaged by an apathetic state government throughout the process.

I learned through this program that the iterative process can assist greatly with informing policy adaptations in a number of ways. Small iterations enable teams to be nimble and learn through doing along the process. This is said to unlock latent ideas and potential within teams, while keeping team members accountable and time-bound to ensure that the process progresses and challenges what is already “feasible” with what could be considered “best practice”.

What I found most useful is that iteration enables authorisers and champions with “soundbite legitimacy” in the early stages of projects as opposed to ‘big wins’. These smaller, iterative wins were also seen to be the most beneficial to staff wellbeing and motivation in the Amabile and Kramer article “The Power of Small Wins”, a particularly insightful article for me.

The planning reform process was further disrupted this year when the Minister for Planning resigned from his position in fairly ignominious circumstances in July; handing the portfolio to the State’s Attorney-General. Having been actively involved with other ministers and their advisers in discussing the reforms from my position in Council I was delighted to accept a role as the Attorney’s Planning Adviser in August.

Already, many of the principles taught throughout the IPP class have been relevant. With a new role as an ‘authoriser’ in the planning reform process, I have been able to apply a different lens to the reforms and already have made steps to further build trust with the community.

Given the very limited time to work within my new role, I have been impressed with the department’s ability to make small, decisive changes which have seen the level of comfort in the community increase dramatically.

These have included policy variations which the Attorney has been able to direct the department to act on, making more content available in plain English through the use of brochures and fact sheets.

Most importantly, a further extension to the implementation deadline has allowed the inclusion of a second round of community consultation and validation.

While this means that the reforms will not be completed until the first quarter of 2021, these changes have already managed to shift the public and private discourse of the reforms, giving me further confidence of their long-term success.

As a result, our office is already planning the next phase of delivery within the Planning and Development context, with ideas for further policy and legislation already being undertaken. By being inquisitive and open with stakeholders at all levels, I am encouraged that our team will be able to deliver on an even more comprehensive suite of policies into 2021 and beyond.

Overall, the IPP course has been extremely valuable for me. While I am still relatively young into my career, and by changing job roles during the course I’ve been able to test my newfound learning in two different contexts and with different levels of authority.

The information presented has been easy to engage with and relevant to my interests. As espoused throughout the course by Professor Andrews, theories can be ‘rented out’ rather than owned and I think it is with this fresh perspective that I would happily recommend the course to others. While challenging at times, I have always found the motivation to stay open to these new ideas, and have adopted many more than I have rejected over time.

Furthermore, the group sessions were some of the most invaluable times for me. Joining my colleagues fortnightly in the middle of the night via Zoom to discuss the class materials as well as our own problem journeys never felt a chore. In fact, while I’m certain I gained more from these sessions than I contributed, I always walked away with some better understanding from talking to my newfound friends.

2020 may be a year people are looking to forget, however there have been some encouraging elements. For me, my project work, new problem-solving principles and attitudes towards leadership have facilitated a more senior job for me, in addition to making number of new friends from across the world!

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Community of Practice and visit the course website to apply.

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