Many planners are prolific authors. Of staff reports. While no planner (to my knowledge) has ever been invited on a podcast or talk show to discuss their latest staff report, these documents are vital to the work planners do. Without staff reports, the local planning function would grind to a halt.
Yet, despite their centrality to the day-to-day work of many planners, the literature on staff reports is surprisingly slim. While there is some good practical guidance on what to include (e.g., Johnson and Lyles 2016 and Meck and Morris 2004), the staff report, as a construct, remains largely unexplored.
In the June issue of Zoning Practice, "Creating Staff Reports With Pizzaz" Bonnie Johnson, FAICP, and Stephanie Kisler, AICP, challenge planners to apply some "right-brain thinking" to the basic staff report template. If your staff reports need a reboot, creativity may be key to deconstructing and reimagining the existing "box" that's keeping your reports from reaching their full potential.
Deconstructing the Box
The worlds of fashion and art may seem like an odd place to start when rethinking the staff report. But Johnson and Kisler suggest that's the point. By borrowing methods from these domains, planners can begin to deconstruct the underlying assumptions that inform staff report form and function.
Synectics is a problem-solving methodology that uses analogies to make "the strange familiar" and "the familiar strange." As Johnson and Kisler explain, Synectics exercises can help planners and staff report consumers sidestep their preconceived notions about what a staff report must be. For example, making a style board can help planners identify interesting features used by other communities, while a mood board can help planners get in touch with what they want to accomplish with their staff reports. And making an impractical, avant-garde staff report can help pave the way for practical template reforms.
Building a Better Box
Creative problem solving isn't just helpful for jettisoning preconceived notions about staff reports. It can also help planners collaborate with other staff members to diagnose problems with existing report templates and generate workable solutions for those problems.
According to Johnson and Kisler, discussions about staff report format and organization can lead to broader workflow reforms that can make it easier for staff to compile meeting packets and members of planning bodies to make better sense of all relevant documentation. Sometimes this means using existing tools in new ways. In other cases, new tools may be necessary to meet evolving needs.
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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.