The use of geographical information in local authority planning departments
Information is perceived to be a vital resource by most organisations. In the case of local authority planning departments the majority of the information utilised has a geographical component. Technological advances in the last ten years have made it practical for most planning authorities in Britain to store and process a substantial proportion of their data needs using computers. However, despite the removal of many of the technical barriers which inhibited the development of computer based systems the experiences of planning authorities have been mixed. With these considerations in mind the research examines three areas which are regarded as likely to influence the effective utilisation of geographical information by planning authorities. These are firstly, factors affecting the development of automated systems, secondly, the role of information in the process of formulating planning policies and thirdly, factors directly influencing the utilisation of information including automated data. The investigation explores through empirical studies the validity of a range of theoretical perspectives which have sought to describe and explain the use of information in organisations. The conceptual framework underlying the research draws on the findings of a series of major studies based in local government in the United States undertaken by the Public Policy Research Organisation of the University of California at Irvine. The framework suggests technology and more particularly the utilisation of information is embedded within the social and political processes of organisations. Three groups of organisational factors are identified as significantly influencing the experiences of local authorities. These are: (i) the organisational context; (ii) people; and (iii) change and instability. The empirical investigations are based on the findings of two in depth case studies undertaken in Hertfordshire County Council and Glasgow District Council. A two stage case study approach was adopted. The methods utilised include exploratory and semi-structured interviews, an analysis of existing documentation, attendance at meetings and observation of the activities of the department. The research findings support the arguments underlying the conceptual framework that organisational factors have a significant impact on the development of computer based systems and the utilisation of geographical information in planning authorities. The link between information and policy making was found to be complex with information often performing tactical, background and even political roles rather than the substantive function often assumed by systems designers. These findings also have important implications for planning practice. Given the significance of human, institutional and organisational considerations to the effective utilisation of geographical information a user centred strategy is proposed. This approach provides a framework which enables the social and political as well as technical nature of computer based systems to be incorporated into the development process. With these considerations in mind there is a need for further work which explores the impact of organisational factors if the current technological opportunities are to be realised in practice.