Donegal Online Planning Services (DOPS)

Donegal County Council (DCC) processes on average 8,000 planning applications annually. Those providing information to the public in a traditional over-the-counter manner were unable to cope with the volumes of information needed. DCC adopted web technologies to deliver this information to customers on a 24/7 basis. Customers can now access and search for planning application details, related scanned documentation, locations via web GIS, pre-planning site analyses, local and county development plans, FAQs and general planning process guidelines. Aware that the Internet is another channel for communicating with its customers, DCC is providing up-to-date planning information in a transparent and accessible manner.

Policy Context

The long term vision of the DCC Information Systems Strategic Plan is to underpin and assist the introduction of significant change within the Council through the implementation of best practice as well as innovative ICT solutions. The over-riding objective of the Information Systems programme is to play a central role in the successful implementation of the Council’s overall Corporate Plan 2004 –2009 which has been agreed by Council. Regard must also be had to relevant national initiatives such as the Local Government Computer Services Boards Partnership for the Future 2003 –2007, the Information Society Commission’s E-Government Strategy 2003 and the Department of Communications Marine & Natural Resources National Broadband Programme 2003. The Inclusion, better public services and quality of life pillar of i2010, promotes an inclusive European Information Society, supported by efficient and user-friendly ICT-enabled public services. DCC seeks to enable citizens to have the choice of accessing Council and other public services; support the democratic process by providing Elected Members with enhanced access to information; as well as provide enhanced opportunities for local Communities and individuals to participate in the decision making process. The Planning & Development Act 2000, Part XVIII, section 249, provides for the use of electronic forms for the provision of information. The National Spatial Strategy aims to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development across Ireland, supported by more effective planning. The Public Services Management Act 1997’s purpose is to enhance the management, effectiveness and transparency of Departments. The Local Government Act 2001 provides to promote efficiency and effectiveness in Local Government by including electronic means. It is evident that DOPS operates under European eGovernment initiatives, National Legislation and policies, and a local adoption of above in the DCC Information Systems Strategic Plan.

Description of target users and groups

DCC processes annually an average of 8,000 planning applications. This is the second highest number of applications per Local Authority in Ireland. This number of applications has an impact on a population of circa 150,000 citizens. The population is entitled to know the planning activity in their locality, and comment on it if deemed necessary. Therefore one the target groups of our application is the population as a whole. In addition to the applicants there are the agents and architectural firms which submit the applications on behalf of their clients. There are over 700 firms listed as submitting applications.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

At the outset of the project, the Information Systems department adopted a very close working relationship with the Planning Section. A working group was set up with both heads of departments as Project Managers. It was vital to win the buy-in of the planning staff and convince them of the benefits of an online system. As staff members were familiar with the electronic internal systems, the adoption of web based systems for public access was a natural progression. DCC adopted a policy of close communication with the public and business communities through local workshops and demonstrations. The systems were also thoroughly demonstrated to the elected Council members through their own extranet facility. Through the project, DCC has created a strong working relationship with 3rd party software houses: SoftCo (scanned documentation); Compass Informatics (WebGIS), and other Local Authorities: Mayo county council (Preplanning).

Technology solution

DCC has improved Public Services by undertaking a major Decentralisation programme over a 10 year period. This involved establishing and contructing 5 Public Service Centres throughout the county from which all Council services, and shared services with other Agencies, are delivered. DOPS is a way of complimenting the physical channel in the Planning area by providing relevant and timely information online. Information available on DOPS is taken directly from internal Council systems. In effect the public have access to the same information as the Council’s official. DOPS is also used, for familiarality reasons, whilst dealing with over-the-counter public enquiries. As part of DCC’s Information Systems strategy, public internet access PC’s have been placed in all the libraries to allow citizens access the system over high speed communication links. DCC has also installed accessible kiosks in all its PSC’s.

Main results, benefits and impacts

DOPS is exceptional in that it delivers all operational aspects of the traditional planning service available over the counter. We are publishing all the application details, all the related scanned documentation and the GIS location mapping, all in a user-friendly, interoperable service. For instance the citizen can search for a known planning number, or by a name, or search using the webGIS maps. From the results they can navigate to all the other services; documents, details and maps. The preplanning system is innovative in that it allows the user to digitise their area of interest and complete a spatial analysis report of that area. Coupled with DOPS was the development of the Planning website to include planning process information and guidance, Weekly planning lists, Contact details, Development Plan texts and links to Planning legislation etc. Part of the novelty is that DCC planning and economic development section is putting itself forward on the web in a transparent manner. Donegal is a large county with a mainly rural population based in centres along the coastal periphery. Large distances can be travelled to and from the Public service centres. The greatest impact for the citizen is the availbility of planning information, without being confined by distance, time and other external factors. The preplanning site analysis module of DOPS has generated ~2700 reports for preplanning consultations. The information provided in this system would otherwise have been acquired over the phone. This business sector uses DOPS to advise clients on the status of their applications. Or by using the preplanning site analysis tool, they can analyse areas of interest in terms of planning policies and constraints. Development plan texts are also available online for consultation. There are over 700 firms listed as submitting applications; these firms would be located locally, nationally and internationally. Both Regional and National authorities can access planning files online to assess their statutory contribution to the planning process. This has increased efficiencies in terms of eliminating time delays due to post, or possible loss of file copies en route. This allows the planner to deal with the application within the legal timeframe. Elected Members, through the DCC policy provision of high speed Broadband access, can use DOPS to consult with their constituents in an informative and open manner. This promotes the inclusion and eDemocracy agenda through the use of electronic services.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

Many Local Authorities, both National and International, have an interest in DOPS and its operation. DCC has advised and shared its knowledge on the implimentation of online eGovernment services. We are currently the lead partner in EU financed BRISE project (eGovernment strand) under Interreg IIIc. We are willing to share further our knowledge and expertise with any interested parties.

Lessons learnt

Lesson 1 - In a mainly rural populated county, even with relatively low broadband penetration, a relevant online service will be used by the citizen. Lesson 2 - The provision of an online system must be developed in the context of a service improvement plan and with close cooperation between IS and business owners. Lesson 3 - There are significant benefits to adopting a modular approach to developing and implementing a system of this nature.

Scope: International, Local (city or municipality), National, Regional (sub-national)
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