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Quickly Switching Over to an Online Permitting/Plan Review System


June 18, 2020 by Steve Butler
Category: Land Use Administration , COVID-19

Quickly Switching Over to an Online Permitting/Plan Review System

Having an online system that allows applicants to remotely apply for development applications has been a longstanding goal for most planning and building departments. Many of the larger departments in Washington State have had their online permitting systems up and running for several years. For most planning/permitting departments, however, other priorities and obstacles have traditionally delayed implementation of such systems. Reasons for those delays include:

  1. Complexity (whether real or imagined);
  2. Expense (for software and training);
  3. Other government projects having higher priority;
  4. Tradition (”Why fix something if it isn’t broken”); and
  5. Inertia. 

The lack of urgency ended with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most local governments deemed their permitting function as being an “essential activity” but had also closed their in-person permit counters to comply with the Governor Inslee’s “Stay Home - Stay Healthy” order and to keep their employees safe and healthy. For those local governments without online permitting systems, plans for developing them were either resurrected or developed for the first time. As mentioned in my earlier blog post, Handling Development Permitting and Inspections During the COVID-19 Pandemic, communities in Washington State became creative in how they took in applications, reviewed development proposals, and issued permits.

This blog will highlight local planning/building departments that quickly converted from a traditional, paper-based permitting/plan review process to an online system

Washington Local Government Case Studies

Here are four local government planning/building departments that switched over to an online permitting approach.

City of Anacortes

Prior to the COVID-19 emergency, Anacortes’ Planning, Community & Economic Development department was predominantly “paper-based” (except for over-the-counter permits, like plumbing permits). When the pandemic hit, city staff recognized the need to accept and review development plans without physically coming in contact with people, but there was no extra money to purchase new permitting/plan review software. Nonetheless, over the span of only three days that department switched over to an online approach and began receiving, reviewing, and issuing permits electronically. 

How did they accomplish that amazing feat, you might ask? The answer is that Anacortes’ staff relied on what they already had on hand, which allowed the department to pivot quickly and cost-effectively. For example, they used existing software programs — Adobe Acrobat for reviewing and marking up development plans and Dropbox for electronic file sharing — and they installed a plastic container box (2 x 3 feet in size; bolted to the ground) outside of their office for use by those applicants still wanting to submit hard copy application materials. Over the next few months, the city will research and consider new planning/permit software options, as well as the use of tablets for site inspections.

City of Fife

Fife purchased SmartGov (a permit tracking system) in 2015 and had recently been working through a lengthy LEAN process to increase their use of the software and improve permitting procedures. With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city's Community Development Department quickly realized that they needed to take what they had and “run with it.” During an intense, two-week time period, staff created processes for online review of all building-related permits and most planning/civil engineering-related permits, did some quick testing, and then turned on the online application options in its permitting software. The software allows people to apply and submit documents through an online “public portal,” which can then be reviewed by staff who can upload comments back through the portal, allowing application submittal, review, and issuance of permits with no person-to-person contact.

A tech-savvy department staffperson, with help from the Community Engagement Department, also set up a user-friendly online permitting webpage and portal, which makes it easy to submit online applications and track the progress of city staff’s review of these. To further make the new system easy to use for both applicants and staff, a YouTube training video was created by the same staffperson (using SnagIt), which deals with four topics: (1) a general introduction to the online portal; (2) setting up a portal account; (3) applying for a permit; and (4) requesting an inspection.

San Juan County

San Juan County also converted quickly to a paperless, online development proposal review system. County staff had been already been thinking about a switch (partially because of public records requests and physical space limitations), so the decision to convert to an online permit center became relatively easy with the arrival of the pandemic. San Juan County uses SmartGov, because it supports electronic submittals and the uploading of plans (both with comments and the final approved plans), and Bluebeam, which is used for building and plan review and also allows emailed submittals. The county’s Community Development Department’s webpage is also very well-organized and contains information useful for both applicants and the general public.

City of Port Angeles

The Port Angeles Community and Economic Development Department has been using an existing permitting module (Central Square); however, the department is overdue to switch to a new platform that can manage records, internal reviews, and workflows, and that offers an online citizen portal for interfacing with the public. In order to facilitate a digital process within the constraints of their current permit module, they’ve designed “work-arounds” for email permit submissions and digital plans review and approval. But the department is working hard to make enhancements to its online permitting system during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order and subsequent reopening phases so that those cost-effective customer service improvements will continue after the order is lifted. For example, the department expanded the online permit payment to all permit types (beyond just over-the-counter permits).

Accordingly, the city is considering a switch to a more user-friendly system, Bluebeam, and is successfully using WebEx for virtual inspections. The city has also transitioned from a telephonic inspection request hotline to using a Civic Plus request form. City staff are exploring implementation of a “Meetings Designed Your Way” system, similar to that used by Pierce County, which would improve customer service outcomes, coordinate staff time from various city departments devoted to customer service, and facilitate social distancing with virtual consultations. Even once the city is approved to reopen buildings, customers may not feel comfortable visiting a physical permit counter.  

Lessons Learned

Here are some tips if you are considering conversion to an online permitting system and related processes:

  • Keep your customers’ needs in mind. Make sure that your online system can be easily used by both applicants and staff. Provide guidance on your website and be available to answer questions. All four of the case study communities followed this principle.
  • Be creative and adaptable. Fife’s series of training videos is a good example of a local government being creative in providing useful information to its customers. 
  • Utilize your IT staff. When looking to use new permitting and plan review software, it''s good to consult with your IT department. But don’t forget to also use the skills of other non-IT staff members who are particularly tech savvy and are willing to help out with different projects.
  • Use what you have on hand, if necessary. Don’t pin all of your hopes on a new “shiny object” if you aren’t able to afford new software and/or cannot easily learn how to effectively use it. Anacortes and Port Angeles are good examples of this approach.
  • Learn from others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. San Juan County met with counterparts in Bellingham to discuss some of the “ins and outs” of Bluebeam software.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced numerous planning and building departments to become creative in how to accept applications, review development plans, and issue permits in a manner that protects the health of both applicants and governmental staff. Many of the new online systems and remote plan review processes have resulted in cost and time savings for both public agencies and applicants. As we shift to the less-restrictive phases of the “Safe Start, Stay Healthy” order, it will be interesting to see what recently created, short-term practices become the “new normal” for local government planning and permitting departments.

MRSC will be offering a webinar in August 2020 that will provide a broad examination of online permitting and plan review systems. See our Training webpage for more details, as they become available.

Author’s note — I want to thank the following people for their assistance with this blog post: Rob Frisinger, Plans Examiner, Dave Oicles, Permit Services Coordinator, and Don Measamer, Planning, Community & Economic Development Director, City of Anacortes; Chris Larson, Senior Planner, City of Fife; Erika Shook, Director of Community Development, San Juan County; and Emma Bolin, Community Development Manager, City of Port Angeles.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.

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