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Separating facts from opinions: the secret to better communication in planning reports

Planning reports are getting longer and that’s making it harder to clearly communicate relevant information.


I hear complaints of this throughout the industry. Reports are getting overly lengthy, stacked with irrelevant information and difficult to find key information in.


The problem may sound fluffy, but it’s big. Millions-of-dollars-a-year big.


For example, in New Zealand alone, there are around 40,000 resource consents (planning applications) a year. Reports are required from applicants (e.g. assessment of environmental effects) and councils (e.g. decision recommendation) so that’s at least two planning reports an application.


That means there's around 80,000 planning reports each year in New Zealand.


With reports often over 40 - 60 pages long, that's millions of pages a year.

It could very well be that there are more pages of planning reports than there are people in New Zealand (approaching sheep status!)

From what we’ve seen, this can often be cut in half while improving the quality of reports. Freeing up significant resources to otherwise be used achieving better outcomes.


Reports are about communication


At the end of the day, a planning report isn’t written for you, it’s written for someone else.


That could be the planner processing your application, the reviewer ensuring it’s correct, or the ultimate decision-maker signing it off.


The most important function of a report is to clearly communicate relevant information to the reader. 


Over time the information required in planning reports has grown substantially due to an increasing number of planning considerations and scrutiny placed on planning decisions. This has made effective reporting increasingly difficult.


Looking closer, there are really two types of information being communicated in a planning report:

  • The information required to inform decisions, I think of these generally as the ‘facts’. These are things like relevant considerations for an application (proposal description, rules to be assessed, provisions to be considered) and the issues to be addressed (where decisions are to be made and their scope).

  • The rationale for decisions made and opinions held, I think of these generally as the ‘opinions’. These are the decisions that have been made with respect to each individual issue, and the reasoning for coming to overall conclusions.


One of the key problems we see in practice is facts and opinions being mixed together.


When this happens the facts get fluffier as they’re mixed with opinions and the opinions get longer as they’re bogged down with facts.


From the reader's perspective, unless they completely trust your judgement, they won’t treat your opinions as fact. They will be sceptical. This is because they want to form their own opinions, and to do that they need the facts first.


That’s why facts and opinions must be separate.



The facts should be communicated in an ‘informative writing style’. Refrain from providing opinions with them and try to lay out the objective details clearly so they can be quickly skimmed and absorbed by the reader. This will avoid triggering the reader's scepticism and give them the information they need to form their own opinion.


Opinions can then be provided clearly and concisely after the burden of detailing the facts is already handled. Having laid out the facts upfront, you’re on top of them rather than in the thick of them and your thinking and subsequently your writing become far clearer and more concise.


Separating facts and opinions makes the communication of both more effective. That’s because they’re fundamentally two different things and they are best treated as such. They should be separate, communicated in the way that is suited to them and provided in the right order, opinions after the facts.


I’ve heard examples of this approach shrinking decision reports from 10,000 words to 2,000.


At Rico, we increasingly look to separate facts and opinions in the report templates and workflows we set up with planning teams. It’s different to what some are used to but it works and planners quickly come around to the merit of the approach.


We like to lay out facts in reader-friendly formats like tables, that can be easily skimmed so the reader can quickly find specific pieces of information to fill gaps in their understanding.


We like to keep opinions concise and focused on decisions and rationale by making it easy to refer to the facts so this can be relied on to back up opinions provided.


We’ve even seen this approach making it easier to navigate disagreements, which the planning industry is no stranger to!


Disagreements at the overall decision level often stem from disagreements on specific facts or opinions. We call these ‘micro-disagreements’. These are disagreements within the set of micro-decisions that go into making an overall decision. 


For example, two parties might disagree at a facts level. One party might think the other is missing a consideration while the other thinks they are considering something that isn’t relevant, resulting in an overall disagreement higher up.


The overall disagreement is really down to one or more micro-disagreements. In this way, the path to resolving the overall disagreement is by addressing the micro-disagreements one by one. (Many planners may be familiar with a form of this if they’ve responded to requests for further information, RFIs, for example)


Separating facts and opinions makes this easier. The micro-decisions and any subsequent disagreements become more explicit. This makes resolving disagreements easier and the decision-making  process clearer for all parties.


Conclusion

To conclude, our experience and perspective on the planning process has shown us the importance of separating facts from opinions for effective reporting. This approach reduces report length, facilitates more productive back and forth when disagreements or gaps inevitably arise and keeps planning applications ticking over efficiently.

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