A digital overhaul of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has digitised 70 per cent of the organisation’s workloads and reduced the time taken to process development applications for state significant projects by 50 per cent.

The changes have also increased transparency and reduced complexity for end users, according to the department. Citizens can now receive notifications for new or updated planning applications in their area and track the progress of significant projects through their own dashboard.

The upgrades, several years in the making, have proved so successful the department’s platform approach is being used as a model for other digital transformation projects across NSW Government.

They’ve also helped the state government department win the inaugural Which-50 Award for Best Community Innovation. The awards celebrate initiatives that make life fast, simple and easy for customers.

The project’s genesis dates back to 2014, when a Premiere’s Priority requested the department halve the average 298 day waiting time to approve even straightforward infrastructure projects.

It took nearly a year to process applications thanks to a maze of legacy systems and manual processes. In one instance a mining project attracted 20,000 submissions by post. As a government department, the organisation is obliged to respond to each one, which means scanning and recording every page. 

“The whole process can take a very long time,” says Naren Gangavarapu, the department’s director of digital and information, planning services, who now leads the initiative and accepted the Which-50 award.

“And then you’re looking at several hundred of these projects going on at the same time.” 

Before long the amount of documents and correspondence enters the millions, Gangavarapu said.

Naren Gangavarapu, NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment director of digital and information, planning services.

And the wait times that accompany such complexity have a bigger cost than disgruntled stakeholders.

“If it takes longer a lot of these parties get disinterested, they actually go away from the state,” Gangavarapu said. “They go to other states or a different country. So we are losing the investment and the creation of jobs that comes with it, and it automatically has an impact on the economy.”

The planning department was given five years to achieve the turnaround, but as Gangavarapu explained, it needed to reach the goal in a way where the gains could be sustained even when attention and additional funding could not.

“We had to look at the core guts of it and see what else we can address. We knew that we had to find mechanisms to better engage the community by simplifying the application process and also increasing transparency.”

Transparency is important not only for citizen confidence but also to appease the numerous stakeholders. Planning projects involve several parties, internal and external, often with competing priorities. 

Building a citizen experience

Gangavarapu said in such projects it is critical to build around the customer using design thinking and human centred design, both concepts which he says are now industry standard.

“The first thing I looked at was who our customers are and what kind of channels are they are interacting with … I mapped whole customer types and then all the various channels through which they communicate. 

“And [then mapped them] to the services we provide, and built a value chain underneath, and then underneath the value chain which bits are manual and which bits are automated, and where we can gain efficiencies.”

He says that mapping has provided a “good picture of where we should be” for an operating model, which can then be used to create program roadmaps and a digital strategy.

It quickly became apparent, Gangavarapu says, that “planning jargon” was also a barrier for customers. 

“It was over my head. So how do we expect the mums and dads to understand what this means to them when someone’s trying to build a train line next to their house or in their suburb.”

Gangavarapu says the language was a microcosm of the department’s problems with customer experience: the services and products required are tailored to regulatory compliance, not the customer. 

Changing it required acknowledgement and buy in from the executive level and a highly engaged sponsor, in this case Group Deputy Secretary Planning and Assessment Marcus Ray, to go beyond typical governance measures.

To improve data consistency the state government also allowed local councils to white label its services, a move Gangavarapu says reduced the amount of incorrect information and duplication of data.

Digitising applications and connecting the planing processes required a scalable platform approach, according to Gangavarapu, and the Department tapped PegaSystems for the underlying software. The US vendor offers a suite of decisioning tools and is particularly strong in government and financial sectors.

Measuring success

Throughout the transformation the department engaged focus groups and customers to test the new services. The groups included a wide range of stakeholders, ranging from government agencies, to private customers, to citizens.

“They were all involved in the process where we engage them and continuously trialled at depth what we were building.”

When the digitisation began last year and the new portal launched in February this year users could also submit feedback, which was then triaged and addressed.

Gangavarapu says the early results this year have been encouraging. “90 per cent of our internal assessment transactions for major projects are done on the platform. 70 per cent of our external customer transactions to do with major projects are done using the platform.”

The previous legacy system could provide only around 30 per cent of the current capabilities, according to Gangavarapu.

Public service culture

Gangavarapu says there is growing awareness and support for the value of digital strategies in government services but many are still at a high level stage.

“The actual skill sets that are required still revolve around a combination of subject matter experts and digital experts being brought together to identify value, as to where the best bang for buck is.”

Often many departments take the external approach, however, bringing in a big four consultant to oversee flashy new digital tools. But often, Gangavarapu says, departments struggle to leverage the new tools – “you buy a Rolls Royce but you don’t know how to use it”. 

“It’s more about getting the people who actually are the frontline people and key SMEs or users of the system to champion the system, become the product owners and give them the education and access to the tools, and access to the subject matter experts as to how it can be done to their benefit.”

Gangavarapu argues — and what he says the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment initiative has proven — is that digital services need to be designed around customer outcomes.

“If you don’t have customer outcomes listed first and work backwards from that, whatever state of the art system you produce, if it doesn’t match [customer outcomes], then it’s money gone down the drain.”

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