The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is understood to be talking to senior council planners to help define what qualifies as poor performance in the speed and quality of decisions.
It follows communities secretary Eric Pickles' announcement last month that the government intends to legislate to allow the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to decide applications if an English council has "a track record of consistently poor performance" on decision-making.
The DCLG has yet to make clear how it intends to judge whether council planning teams are consistently poorly performing.
This week, the DCLG published a league table of councils' performance in determining applications as it seeks to introduce a "planning guarantee", where no scheme spends more than 26 weeks with either the planning authority or PINS.
The report shows that, out of 315 authorities that responded in every quarter of 2011-12, 278 determined more than 95 per cent of all cases within 26 weeks.
For major planning decisions, there is more variation, with ten authorities scoring below 50 per cent and 12 councils scoring 100 per cent.
Two of the lowest scorers, Torbay Council and the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, cited lengthy section 106 negotiations as the reason for hold-ups.
Pat Steward, senior service manager for strategic planning and implementation at Torbay Council, said it takes time to get such complex deals right for all parties.
Of the 28 major schemes the council dealt with last year, he said that only two were refused, warning that imposing the planning guarantee could prompt a rise in refusals and lead to poorer outcomes.
A spokesman for the London borough said its performance was disappointing, but that its focus remains on working with applicants to achieve a successful outcome.
"We were one of a few local authorities nationally and the only local authority in London to approve 100 per cent of the major applications we received," he said.
He added that the council intends to agree section 106 deals in parallel with applications in future "rather than let them drag on beyond determination".
The Royal Town Planning Institute said the speed of a judgement can depend on "a huge range of local factors as well as resourcing".
Planning Officers Society president Malcolm Sharp said the report shows that most councils are doing a good job and the society would support the few that appear to have problems.
He added that it is important to use a planning performance agreement (PPA) where possible for major applications, which involves setting a clear timetable to process schemes outside normal time targets.
British Property Federation senior policy officer Ghislaine Trehearne said the government needs to give PPAs more strength: "At present, they are not legally enforceable and are therefore toothless in the face of any disagreements."
In his ministerial statement on the reforms, Pickles said that the government will work with the Local Government Association to increase the use of PPAs.
A DCLG spokesman said: "This report is part of a package of measures both to highlight the best and worst performing councils in the country, and to work with the worst to help raise their game. We will publish more information about the planning guarantee in due course."
The report is available via Planning Resource.co.uk/go/referencesection
Lowest Scorers: All Applications
Lowest scoring authorities for determining all applications within 26
Ribble Valley: 91%
Lowest Scorers: Major applications
Lowest scoring authorities for determining major applications within 26
Isles of Scilly: 0%
Barking & Dagenham: 33%
Kensington and Chelsea: 33%
North Norfolk: 42%
SOURCE: DCLG planning guarantee monitoring report