The NSW Government has been found to have overstated the benefits reaped by stakeholders from its ePlanning portal, with a recent NSW Auditor-General report concluding that any gains made were due, also, to a broad suite of planning reforms as well as a miscalculation of financial benefits.
The auditor also found that several users had complained that the portal was “not intuitive and creates additional work for them”.
While the Auditor-General does not dispute that financial and process efficiency gains have been made as a result of the online portal, originally launched in 2013, it has questioned the veracity of the Government’s claim – made in September 2021 – that stakeholders, collectively, have realised “$334 million in benefits” as a direct result of ePlanning’s use.
Curiously, the reported “$333.8 million in benefits” exceeded the Department of Planning and Environment’s (DPE’s) original 2021 target by 260 per cent. (Capital outlay for the ePlanning program was $119.6 million from July 2013 to December 2021 – $38.5 million or 47.5 per cent more than expected.)
According to the auditor, the DPE – which created and oversees the portal – still attributes the benefits of shorter planning cycles “entirely to the effect of the ePlanning program”.
However, these gains were most likely due to several concurrent departmental initiatives “designed to improve the time that it takes for a planning application to be evaluated”, the auditor noted. Among these include the Planning Reform Action Plan, a long-term structural reform of the planning system, and the DPE’s creation of a dedicated Planning Delivery Unit, introduced to help expedite priority planning projects.
The auditor claims that the DPE also over-emphasised and “extrapolated” the benefits of the portal realised by a small number of early-adopter councils, including “lower printing and scanning costs, fewer forms and quicker processing times”. A number of users had, in fact, reported the opposite.
“[Some] councils report that their costs have increased following the introduction of the portal, primarily because aspects of the portal duplicate work that they carry out in their own systems,” the auditor said. “The portal has also required some councils to re-engineer aspects of their own systems, such as the integration of their planning systems with other council systems such as finance or property and rating systems.”
“It has also required councils to create new ways of integrating council information systems with the planning portal.”
The auditor acknowledged that the DPE has recognised that the portal “does not currently deliver an optimum experience for all users”. The Department, it said, has acted on this charge, committing $4.8 million in 2021 for an API-based solution to ensure councils and certifiers can more easily connect to and share data with the planning portal.
The auditor also disputes the accuracy of the DPE’s calculation of the single largest contribution to its benefits report (an estimated saving of $151 million for developers due to lower costs associated with holding their investments for a shorter time), which, among other concerns, contains “several data in errors in spreadsheets” used to calculate the benefit.
The ePlanning portal, first launched in 2013 and updated continuously since, was designed to offer stakeholders (including developers, local councils, state planning agencies and certifiers) a one-stop-shop “end-to-end planning lifecycle” for planning approvals, building works applications and occupation and compliance concerns.
The DPE originally planned to have ePlanning progressively adopted by all councils and other stakeholders over the five years to 2025; however, in 2019, it opted to bring forward the mandated use of the portal by the end of 2020–21 for all stages of development applications.
DPE urged to lay out ePlanning priorities timeline
The auditor also called on the DPE to release a clearer outline of its proposed updates to the ePlanning portal in 2022 and 2023, ensuring stakeholders are not left out of the loop.
While noting that the DPE’s “overall program planning disciplines have improved”, making it “better positioned to manage the ePlanning program scope through to the program’s conclusion in 2023”, proposed additions to its current program of work have yet to be outlined by the Department, potentially causing problems for stakeholders needing to adapt.
Among these additions include ongoing changes to State Environment Planning Policies (SEPPs), with the Government mooting a number of updates to housing, design and place, and codes SEPPs.
While the auditor noted that ePlanning should be flexible enough to “respond to important new policy and other requirements”, it urged the DPE to more clearly define the portal’s future program of work and clearly communicate this to stakeholders.
The DPE, it said, “has not yet communicated the new services it plans to add, or improvements that it plans to make, to the portal over the remainder of the program.”