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A Victorian first for Yarra Ranges Council

Published on 16 April 2018


A strong culture of shared leadership and a commitment to delighting the customer led to major milestones and a Victorian first for Yarra Ranges Council.

At 9.30am on March 5, 2018, Yarra Ranges Council became the first Council in Victoria to provide a complete digital planning application experience.

Yarra Ranges is the only Victorian Council and one of five across Australia, where ean applicant can enquire, lodge, track and pay for their planning application online.

While a handful of Councils have managed to build systems where applicants and residents can track planning applications, no other Victorian Council is providing a fully-digital planning experience.

To appreciate what inspired Yarra Ranges Council to take on this challenge, we need to rewind 16 months. The previous Statutory Planning Service was outdated with arduous application processes and long response times.

Our people were frustrated because they couldn’t provide an outstanding level of service, because of outdated processes and systems, and old ways of thinking.

As the newly-appointed Director to the area, I wanted to understand how we could resolve these issues and positively move forward.

One of the first steps was to undertake a service review that engaged every employee within the business unit.

Pleasingly, the feedback from the officers was unanimous in that they valued their work and were committed to providing high-quality planning advice in a timely manner.

Many also felt they didn’t have sufficient access to technology themselves. To address this, one of the first steps was to provide everyone in the business unit with a 2-in-1 device and training on how to maximise the use of the device.

This relatively small step had the immediate impact of providing people options about how and when they worked.

Immediately, people reported that they were using their time more effectively as they were able to write assessments and take photos during site visits. It also provided freedom for people to work more flexibly, including from home and other Council facilities. Access to technology was embraced and our Team Leader Bianca Rich led everyone through our Digital Transformation Change Project, which resulted in a paperless office.

While having access to the relevant technology in achieving our goal, we knew our systems and process needed a complete rethink if we were aiming to provide 24/7 access to applicants and interested parties through digital channels.

The expertise to make these changes was already there with our highly-talented people, but their talents, skills and leadership capabilities were not being fully harnessed.

I knew that if we were to achieve our ambitious targets, we needed to have a team of people across a range of disciplines and leadership styles working together. Strategic and statutory planners, business support officers, governance officers, communications advisors and IT and enterprise systems specialists were assembled.


Some of Yarra Ranges Council's ePlanning team: Kirsty Thomas, Tanya Overton, Naomi Henderson, Katie Douglas, Tony Mann and Marcella Simone.

Each person also brought with them different leadership strengths, from achieving, influencing, delegating, action-oriented, relationship building and strategic thinking.

Our newly-appointed Manager, Damian Closs, played a critical role in galvanising the team while making sure the day-to-day operations still continued. Our dedicated Project Implementation Officer, Tony Mann, relied on his influencing leadership skills to ensure all of the recommendations resulting from the service review were realised.

Significant research was undertaken before a decision was made by the team to partner with TechnologyOne to deliver the online customer interface to complement the digitisation of our process, which we completed in July 2017.

Throughout 2017, the team met regularly with TechnologyOne to build the ePlanning platform. Strategic and Statutory Planners made sure that every nuance of the Yarra Ranges and State Planning Schemes was captured, so that when an applicant makes an enquiry about a block of land, a title or a house for sale, all relevant information is provided in less than a second.

Business Support Officers were able to fine tune how payments could be made online and applications tracked. Our Communications team provided expert advice on how to translate the Planning Scheme into plain English – no easy task!

Information Management Officers guided the team on how we could display submissions and objections online while not falling foul of Victorian privacy laws.

While all of this activity was happening, the team was exploring how it could reorganise the Business Unit to reduce the backlog of applications and provide a fast-track service for less complex applications. Ideas were brainstormed, tested and fine-tuned with other officers, councillors, residents and frequent applicants.

Other improvements that were made included collaborating with Council’s Economic Development team to more-effectively support for applications that were deemed to add a significant social, cultural, environmental or economic value to the municipality.

A Customer Experience Team was established to filter applications, to avoid unnecessary Further Information Requests. Significant improvements to Council’s internal and external referral processes were also made.

An external arborist panel was created and closer relationships with engineers and referral bodies such as the CFA and Melbourne Water have been established.

All of these improvements, when combined, have led to significant reductions in the number of days it takes Council to process simple, moderate and complex applications.

Fast-forward to April 2018, and we are now enjoying our highest customer satisfaction levels to date. Our employees are happier, more productive and more engaged with the business. Another outcome of the service review was to increase training and offered secondment opportunities for everyone.

Many staff have received promotions and some have taken up secondment opportunities in other areas of the organisation. Our brand across the sector is now recognised as a high performing organisation and an employer of choice that continues to go from strength to strength.

Continuing to focus on building a culture of innovation, trust and empowerment together with our focus on providing targeted, effective and efficient services to our community and applicants, Yarra Ranges Planning Services team will continue too explore ways to further enhance our service delivery.

In conclusion, Yarra Ranges has become the first Council in Victoria to offer a complete ePlanning platform because our employees are motivated to delight our customers and provide outstanding customer service.

As soon as they were empowered to harness their leadership strengths, take risks and were equipped with the right technologies, everything fell into place.

Our customers, Council and our employees are reaping the rewards.

Written by Director of Social and Economic Development, Ali Wastie. Originally published by the Planning Institute of Australia, reproduced with permission.

For more information, visit Council’s ePlanning page. 


Director of Social and Economic Development, Ali Wastie.