INTERVIEW: Skills troubleshooter

A good grasp of management skills is crucial for all staff in planning departments to enable them to put in a creditable performance, Alan Smith tells David Dewar.

The role of the interim manager has become increasingly prominent in the running of planning departments. Recruitment difficulties, poor inspection reports and disagreements between members and officers are all situations that can spur the appointment of a temporary chief to guide a department into calmer waters.

It is a role in which independent adviser Alan Smith has found himself many times. Smith is a former chief executive of Kingswood Borough Council, a post that he held for 20 years. Since becoming an independent consultant in 1995, he has frequently been asked to parachute in to councils to advise on organisational changes or to deal with problems such as staffing issues or poor performance.

He has acted as interim chief executive or director of planning in eight authorities for periods of anything up to six months. So it is not surprising that over the course of his career he has become a tireless advocate of management skills and is now well versed in the key ingredients for running a successful planning service.

Smith remarks that the most common response he receives from planning staff when he starts talking about management is one of bewilderment.

"People wonder why management matters to them," he reveals. "You can see it in their faces. They think 'that's the boss's job, he's the one who deals with that'. But I want people to realise that everyone is a manager in their own way. They manage themselves and they manage other people, indirectly or directly, in a team."

As people progress up the career ladder, Smith points out, they tend to carry out less professional planning work and more of the organisational, diplomatic, negotiation, leadership and training side of the job. "So management is for everybody, not just for directors or chief executives," he insists.

Smith has helped a number of authorities by providing specialist advice on how to improve their performance. Going into such a role can be difficult, he admits, because you need to win the confidence and trust of the staff, members and senior managers of the authority while also taking a practical and realistic approach to devising solutions to problems.

On the other hand, he argues, the advantage an "outsider" can have is that he or she can bring expertise, experience and objectivity to the analysis of problems and provide a source of practical advice. "The benefits are that the objectivity is going to be respected," he explains. "You haven't got the same hang-ups as other employees of the council."

In such situations, Smith's approach is to take a step back and analyse the problems in the organisation, listen to the management and staff about what is happening and assess the resources, skills and workload available to see what can be done. "The first stage is literally to listen," he contends. "Listen to the staff and debate current problems and perceptions, not only in the department but elsewhere in the organisation."

He maintains that the right approach is to bring staff on board rather than to act as a threat. "You have to enter into a dialogue about the issues and that cannot be done from on high. You have to work with the staff, make them enthusiastic and understand them. You are there to help, you are not there as a hatchet man," is how he sees his role.

"Very often people will be nervous about an outsider coming in to turn things around," he says. "They think that what will follow will be some sort of axe-cutting or cull, whereas it is not about that. Staff are only too anxious to improve and they feel the pressure as much as anyone.

"What they want is encouragement, support and somebody to lend a hand and give an external detached focus on what they are doing and also to remind them about what goes on elsewhere. I don't like to finish a job and think that when I go back I won't be welcome. I'm more about trying to do something implementable, workable, practical and logical."

According to Smith, common problems in failing authorities include poor leadership from managers who rarely get involved with staff, an unwillingness to face up to problems, an inability to marshal limited resources and a failure to take the initiative in keeping the public, media and members informed of the department's achievements.

But the most critical problem, he stresses, is usually a lack of skills and resources. "Sometimes you have a different way of processing planning applications, training technicians or a greater emphasis on printed rather than oral guidance to applicants," he explains. "But very often the really poor performers suffer from a lack of professional people or use poor systems and information."

When looking at failing authorities, Smith believes that it is difficult to turn things around instantly. Certain key steps can be identified that will make the difference and help people turn the corner, he says - notably a focus on keeping things simple. "You can over-complicate things. You need to focus on ways of achieving things and to keep it simple," he insists.

"If you have complicated mission statements, you will not engage the lady on the front desk, the clerks or the junior planners. If you say: 'Our aim is to deal with applications as quickly and as efficiently as we can, give a good service and a caring approach even when you've got bad news to tell,' that's important. It is about giving a good impression and those sort of messages are key.

"I still believe that the things we need to do to achieve best results are just to retain a focus on what the service is meant to be doing. What does the man in the street want? The applicant, user group, the parish council? What are they after and what is important to them?"

This philosophy reflects Smith's whole ethos on management and the importance of the service delivery aspect of planning. "How I ended up in management stems from a belief that we have to provide a good service. We are not just here to satisfy our professional curiosity," he concludes.

"My attitude is summed up by the thought that the people who come through the door may not get the answer that they want as to whether they can have a house in the green belt. But at the same time I would like them to go out feeling that they had a fair hearing and were given a reasonable and understandable explanation as to why."

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CAREER DETAILS

Age: 65.

Family: Married with one son and one daughter.

Education: BSc (Hons) in geography, University of Hull; postgraduate

diploma in planning, Nottingham College.

Career: Various local government planning posts, 1960-73; chief planning

officer, Kingswood Borough Council, 1973-75; chief executive, Kingswood

Borough Council, 1975-95; independent planning and management

consultant, 1995 to date.

Interests: Travel, mah-jong, villages, skiing.

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