ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING AND INFORMATION MANAGEMENT IN COUNTY PLANNING AUTHORITIES
T.D. Wilson and I.M. Masser
University of Sheffield,
Sheffield S10 2TN, UK
Local authority planning departments in the UK carry out environmental monitoring to assess the impact of planning decisions and to collect information on factors likely to affect future plans. Attitudes towards monitoring vary: in some departments it is the function of a separate section, in others the functions are distributed over several sections. It was hypothesized that information management practices will also vary and a questionnaire study of all planning departments in England and Wales was carried out to test a set of hypotheses. This paper reports the results of the study.
This paper reports on the results of a census of County Planning Authorities (CPAs) in England and Wales using a mailed, self-completed questionnaire, intended to obtain information on the state of information management in these authorities and the relationship of information management to aspects of environmental monitoring.
By their very function CPAs are 'self-evaluating' organizations: the function of planning carries with it a necessity to discover something about the impact of plans when they are put into effect and to understand the nature of change in the environment for which plans are intended. In other words, a process of 'organizational learning' (Argyris & Schon, 1965) must take place if the organization is to continue to fulfill the aims for which it is established. Studies such as those by Witdavsky (1972) point to the central position played by information management practices in organizational learning.
Despite the frequent re-iteratation of the importance of information management, however, little is known about the relationship to organizational learning in the field of urban planning. Most models of the implementation process stress the interaction between policy and action and stress the evolutionary nature of the process (for example, Barratt & Fudge, 1981) and deal with information practices only in passing. Similarly, studies in the field of information management tend to be concerned either with narrow technical questions or with human factors aspects and the literature on organizational impacts is much less extensive.
In the study reported here the focus of the investigation was 'monitoring' - that is, those activities of CPAs which relate to the impact of plans or the discovery of environmental information related to plan making. In the planning literature considerable attention has been given to the monitoring function and models exist which relate organizational learning to data collection, information dissemination, and information handling (see, for example, Faludi's (1973) cybernetic model of the planning process).
The investigation was confined to CPAs for two main reasons:
- because these authorities have taken a leading role in the implementation of monitoring systems because of their statutory responsibilities for the preparation of 'structure plans' (Cater, 1979; Van Meyel, 1979);
- because of their emphasis on strategic monitoring rather than on a more narrowly conceived performance monitoring (Floyd, 1978).
The investigation was carried out using a structured, self-completed questionnaire in which views were sought in terms of their polar extremes. Respondents were asked to select the extreme that corresponded most closely to their own situations.
There are clear disadvantages in such an approach: first, respondents have no opportunity to qualify their answers, other than in added comment or in a covering letter, and may find it impossible to categorise themselves according to the options presented in the questionnaire. Secondly, however well they are constructed, the polar extremes are unlikely to appear as mutually exclusive to all respondents because of differences in local practice. Thirdly, there is the danger of overcategorization, in that respondents may not be aware of the hypotheses implicit in the categories. Despite these difficulties, however, it was felt that the approach was likely to be more satisfactory than a factual, data-collection exercise, particularly for a preliminary investigation.
A two-part questionnaire was sent to all County Planning Authorities in England and Wales with instructions that the section asking for contextual information on current planning activities should be filled in by the County Planning Officer or someone else with a broad overview of the activities of the Planning Authority as a whole, while the section on attitudes to information management should be answered by the officer most closely concerned with this task. In addition to the questions related to the hypotheses described below respondents were asked for supplementary information on their information activities and for their views on the likely impact of current developments in information technology.
1. Planning hypotheses:
These hypotheses and the associated results have been presented in another paper by the same authors (Masser & Wilson 1983) and will not be reviewed in detail here.
The planning hypotheses related to planning priorities, the status of monitoring within the Authorities, and various aspects of their approach to monitoring. They can be stated briefly, in null form, as follows:
PH 1: there will be no differences in planning priorities relative to the date of Structure Plan approval.
PH 2: there will be no differences in the extent to which monitoring activities are integrated with other departmental functions relative to differences in planning priorities.
PH 3: there will be no differences in the main purpose of monitoring (as either reviewing progress or identifying new choices and problems) relative to differences in planning priorities.
PH 4: there will be no differences in the extent to which reports on monitoring are directed towards internal or external consumers relative to differences in planning priorities.
2. Information management hypotheses
It was anticipated that information management practices would vary among the respondents in ways related to their overall planning priorities and to the status given to monitoring. Consequently, the following
hypotheses were tested (again given in null form):
IH 1: there will be no differences in the scope of information collection relative to differences in planning priorities.
IH 2: there will be no differences in the extent of use of computerised versus manual information systems relative to differences in planning priorities.
IH 3: there will be no differences in the extent of use of computerised versus manual information systems relative to the variation in state of development of monitoring activities.
IH 4: there will be no differences in the extent to which special information systems have been developed for monitoring relative to differences in planning priorities.
IH 5: there will be no differences in the extent to which special information systems have been developed for monitoring relative to differences in the state of development of monitoring activities.
IH 6: there will be no differnces in the extent to which needs are perceived for systems which deal with 'hard', quantitative information rather than 'soft', qualitative information relative to differences in planning priorities.
IH 7: there will be no differences in the extent to which needs are perceived for systems which deal with 'hard', quantitative information rather than 'soft', qualitative information relative to differences in the state of development of monitoring activities.
IH 8: there will be no differences in reporting procedures in monitoring relative to differences in planning priorities.
IH 9: there will be no differences in reporting procedures relative to differences in the state of development of monitoring activities.
It was also felt that there would be relationships among the information management variables resulting from variations in practice and, therefore, the following hypotheses were also tested:
IH10: there will be no differences in perceived needs for systems which manage 'hard' information relative to differences in the scope of information collection.
IH11: there will be no differences in reporting procedures in monitoring relative to differences in perceived needs for systems which manage 'hard' information.
Respondents were also asked to rank the perceived importance of three operational problems in information management: the lack of relevant information; problems in the retrieval, processing and evaluation of information; and lack of effective channels of communication; and two further hypotheses were tested in relation to these problems:
IH12: there will be no differences in the perceived importance of operational problems relative to differences in the scope of information collection.
IH13: there will be no differences in the perceived importance of operational problems relative to differences in perceived needs for systems to manage 'hard' information.
Questionnaires were sent to the 54 County Planning Authorities in England and Wales in mid-November 1982; a follow-up letter, with an additional copy of the questionnaire, was sent to those who had not responded
to the initial request at the end of January 1983. The response was excellent with replies being received from 51 authorities, or 94.4%, of whom only three declined to answer the questionnaire. The remaining 48 responses (88.9%) contained sufficient information for analysis and, in many cases, gave added comments and additional material designed to assist in the evaluation of their responses. On the basis of response rate alone, therefore, it can be claimed that the questionnaire touched upon a theme perceived to be of importance to the Planning Authorities and this was borne out by statements in covering letters to the effect that respondents were eager to see the results.
As expected, a number of respondents had problems in defining their activities in terms of the categories included in the questionnaire. In a number of cases tied ranks were given and respondents devised their own categories. These problems were most serious in the question on planning priorities where 7 of the 48 respondents were unable to distinguish among priorities and several more ranked two or more priorities equally.
With these exceptions, however, the vast majority of respondents appear to have had little difficulty in completing the questionnaire.
Even so, the findings of the survey must be treated with some caution as it is difficult to assess the extent to which arbitrary choices may have been made. The questionnaire, as noted earlier, was explicitly
directed towards different parts of the organization and there is evidence to suggest (particularly among those who responded after follow-up) inconsistent and apparently contradictory views between
these parts of the organization.
The interpretation of the responses with respect to the hypotheses listed above is fraught with difficulties: some of the problems have been noted above and include tied ranking of some issues by some respondents, a degree of non-response, and the difficulties experienced by some respondents in answering some of the questions. In most case the Chi-squared results reported for the hypotheses are lower than
the level usually required for acceptance: however, given that a census was conducted, rather than a survey, we have chosen to take a level of p = 0.10 as indicating 'some support', p = 0.05 as 'support' and p< 0.05 as 'strong support' for rejecting the null hypothesis.
In the light of the difficulties and the exploratory nature of the work, the following comments in the hypotheses should be regarded as tentative and open to clarification on the basis of further work.
1. The planning hypotheses
Of the four hypotheses under this heading two found some support in the results; PHI and PH3. It is clear from Table 1 that the date of Structure Plan approval has some relationship to the main perceived
priority of the CPAs. For the purpose of analysis authorities were divided into two categories; those that gave top priority either to the control of new development or to maintenance of the existing landscape, and those regarded the promotion of economic growth or 'securing adequate provision for less-privileged groups' as being either their top or equal first priority. More than three quarters of the post-1980 Structure Plan approvals are in respect of authorities which fall into the second category.
Table 2 shows, also, that authorities that fall into the second group are more likely to see the function of monitoring as aiding the identification of new problems and choices, rather than as helping
the review of progress towards policy implementation. One would expect this latter finding to be of relevance to information management practices. The value for chi-squared is not significant even within the
looser constraints adopted here but the figure of 14 in cell D of the table is, nonetheless, very suggestive of a relationship.
Table 1 (Chi-squared = 3.59 with 2df p. <0.10)
|Main planning priority||Structure plan approval date|
|Before 1980||After 1980|
|New development/Existing environment||9||5|
|Economic growth/Less privileged||9||18|
Table 2 (Chi-squared = 1.14 with Idf p. >O.20 but <.30)
|Main function of monitoring||Main priority|
|To review progress||8||9|
|To identify problems||6||14|
In relation to PH2 and PH4 the results suggested that authorities generally regarded the monitoring function as being integrated with other functions of the Department and as being directed towards the
provision of timely information rather than as increasing general awareness. This latter result is a little surprising as it was anticipated that the 'post 1980 approval' authorities, oriented towards economic growth and provision for less privileged groups, would be more inclined to look for monitoring systems which aided general awareness.
2. The information management hypotheses
Of the 13 information management hypotheses 7 found some support in the results: IH 2, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13.
Three of the hypotheses relating information management issues to monitoring are supported by the data (if only weakly in some cases). First, IH2 linking type of information system to planning priorities:
the relationship is rather weak but there is a strong probability that authorities with priorities for economic growth and support for less-privileged groups (which also to be those with post-1980 Structure Plan approval) tend to have adopted computerized systems more readily.
Table 3 (Chi-squared = 2.92 with Idf p. <0.10)
|Planning priorities||Type of information systems|
Secondly, IH7 links perceived system needs with the state of development of monitoring: here there was just a suggestion here that authorities with 'evolving' practices were more likely to perceive their needs to be for systems to handle 'soft' information. Authorities with established practices were more lively to perceive a need for 'hard' data.
Table 4 (Chi-squared = 2.40 with Idf p. >0.10 but <0.20)
|Information system needs ||State of development of monitoring|
|'Hard data' systems||11||11|
|'Soft information' systems||5 ||14|
Thirdly, the state of development of monitoring is associated in IH9 with reporting procedures. Authorities with established procedures are slightly more likely to produce regular reports for committees
and officers, whereas those whose procedures are still evolving are much more likely (12 authorities to 3) to report on an ad hoc basis. Table 5 shows the strongest basis for the rejection of any of the
null hypotheses in this group and it may be that the 'communication factor' inherent in this relationship has strong associations with aspects of organizational structure and functioning generally.
Table 5 (Chi-squared = 4.99 with Idf p.<0.05)
|Reporting procedures ||State of development of monitoring|
|Ad hoc response||3||12|
The remaining four hypotheses with some degree of support all link one aspect of information management with another. The distinction between systems for 'hard data' and those for 'soft information' figure in three of the four, and information acquisition practices (defined as either 'comprehensive' in scope or 'restricted') also figure in two of the four.
On the basis of Tables 6 to 9 one can summarize briefly that authorities which restrict their information acquisition activities to material relevant to major, immediate planning issues are much more likely to feel a need for systems to handle 'hard' data. They are also more likely to perceive a lack of relevant information as their principal operational problem in information management.
Table 6 (Chi-squared = 10.78 with Idf p.<0.01)
|Information system needs||Approach to data collection|
|'Hard data' systems ||19||3|
|'Soft information' systems||7||12|
Authorities with 'comprehensive' acquisition policies are more likely to feel a need for systems to handle 'soft' information and are more evenly divided over the operational problems with one fewer choosing
'lack of relevant information' than the other two categories. This pattern is repeated in Table 9 revealing the link between 'hard' data and lack of relevant information.
Table 7 (Chi-squared = 2.05 with Idf p. > 0.10 but <0.20)
|Reporting procedures||Information system needs|
|'Hard data'||'Soft information'|
|Regular reports||17 ||10|
|Ad hoc response||6||9|
Table 8 (Chi-squared = 4.60 with 2df p.<0.10)
|Operational problems||Approach to data collection|
|Lack of relevant information||15||5|
|Retrieval, processing, evaln.||8||6|
|Channels of communication||3||6|
Table 9 (Chi-squared = 7.79 with 2df p.<0.05)
|Operational problems||Information system needs|
|'Hard data'||'Soft information'|
|Lack of relevant information ||14||4|
|Retrieval, processing, evaln.||5||7|
|Channels of communication||2||7|
Two 'stereotypes' appear to emerge from this investigation. The basis for the stereotypes appears to be related to a division between
those authorities that define information as 'hard data' and those
that have a wider definition which includes 'qualitative' information.
CPAs that adopt the former definition are likely to have a policy
of restricted information acquisition and regular reporting to
committees and others. They are also more likely to perceive there
to be a lack of relevant information. In relation to the planning
characteristics these authorities tend to give highest priority to
traditional land use matters.
CPAs that adopt the more 'general' definition of information are
more likely to have a policy of comprehensive information acquisition
and to make use of ad hoc reporting practices. Authorities falling
into this stereotype are more likely to regard information retrieval,
processing and evaluation or lack of effective channels of communication as the most serious information management problem. There is
some connection between these characteristics and the more general
planning characteristic of priority for economic and social issues.
We would not wish to over-emphasise the existence of these two stereotypes because the relationship among the component elements of the
two sets are not always strongly marked. This 1st particularly evident in the case of the relationship between the responses to the
question in the planning section on the function of monitoring and
that in the information management section on the practices of information acquisition. On a priori grounds it might have baa n expected
that there would be reasonably close correspondence between authorities that regard the main function of monitoring as being to review
progress towards plan-implementation and those that have adopted
a policy of restricted information acquisition. One might also expect
that those viewing the main function of monitoring as being to identify
new problems and choices would also be those adopting a policy of
comprehensive information acquisition. The findings, however, show
no clear pattern at all in this respect.
The rather weak relationship between information management variables
and planning variables leads to the formulation of a further hypothesis - that because information management is seen as a technical
task undertaken by specialists of one kind or another (and increasingly by specialists in computing), it is to some extent divorced
from organizational characteristics. This is not to say that subjects
of the documents or data are unrelated to organizational functions
but that the 'management' of the information-bearing media is sufficiently specialized and distinct not to be affected by organizational
characteristics. This is clearly a possibility well worth further
The work reported here was of an exploratory nature and some of the
findings are ambiguous in character. The limitations of a purely
'quantitative' approach to research in this area are revealed and
we would argue that there is a need for further work to identify
variables related both to planning and to information management
which will show greater discriminatory power among CPAs. We would
also argue that further work ought to take a 'case study' approach
in which those authorities which show clearest evidence of following
one 'stereotype' position or another are studied first so that the
real nature of the distinguishing characteristics can be uncovered.
The possibility, noted above, that information management practices
may not be closely related to other aspects of the organization is
of some general significance and any further study should explore
this issue in particular in greater depth.
- Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1965). Organizational learning: a theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
- Barratt, S. & Fudge, C. (1981). Policy and action: essays on the implementation of public policy. London: Methuen.
- Cater, E. (1979). Patterns of information use in planning: a study of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Department of Town Planning. (Working Paper 39)
- Faludi, A. (1973). Planning theory. Oxford: Pergamon.
- Floyd, M. (1978). Structure plan monitoring: looking to the future. Town Planning Review, 49, 476-485
- Masser, I.M. & Wilson, T.D. (1983). Approaches to information management in County Planning Authorities in England and Wales: a survey. Sheffield: University of Sheffield, Department of Town and Regional Planning. (Occasional paper no. TRP 40)
- Van Meyel, A. (1979). Approaches to strategic monitoring: a case study approach. Geoforum, 10, 387-405
- Wildavsky, A. (1972) The self-evaluating organization. Public Administration Review, 32, 509-520
This paper was originally published in Representation and Exchange of Knowledge as a Basis of Information Processes, H.J. Dietschmann (ed.) Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland), 1984
How to cite this paper
Wilson, T.D. & Masser, I.M. (1984) Environmental monitoring and information management in county planning authorities, In: H.J. Dietschmann, ed. Representation and exchange of knowledge as a basis of information processes. (pp.271-284) Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. [Available at http://informationr.net/tdw/publ/papers/1984emim.html]