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Moving to electronic plan submittal and review: Three things to consider

06.14.16

Online banking? Check.
Online shopping? You bet.
Online permit application submittal? What? Actually, yes.


As Americans are becoming more and more accustomed to performing everyday functions online, local governments are evolving and keeping up with the times. This online evolution is coming in the form of implementing modern enterprise applications with electronic workflow and a public-facing portal that allows residents to apply for permits, submit documentation, pay for, and collaborate with local government staff to perform a variety of processes.

One area of recent focus is the online submittal and routing of electronic planning and permit applications, and supporting plans and drawings. This effort is often driven by a desire to expand e-government offerings available to the public, while also realizing internal efficiencies through electronic workflow and simultaneous review, and a reduction in paper usage.

If you were to take a tour of most City or County Building, Planning, or Development Departments, in many instances you would see bins containing rolls of large (24”x36”) scale drawings that support planning (e.g., subdivision, rezoning, etc.) or permit (e.g., new family residential dwelling, accessory building, etc.) documents. With local government agencies receiving hundreds of paper applications each year, the internal driver for moving to an electronic submittal and review environment is evident. Additionally, when it is understood that the applicant develops these documents in a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system prior to printing, and are also required to submit applications in-person during business hours, the need for simplified online processes is even more pressing.

On the surface, moving to an electronic application submittal and review platform may appear pretty straightforward. However, like any major process and technology change there are several major considerations. Here are three that each agency should look at prior to starting an electronic application submittal and review project.

  1. Change to Current Business Processes
    Current processes related to application submittal, completeness review, routing to reviewers, consolidation of review comments, and return of comments and mark-ups to applicants are paper intensive.
    • Are current processes designed around paper submittals?
    • Will reviews be simultaneous or sequential? Should this change?
    • How will electronic copies be distributed to reviewers? How about third-party reviewers?
    • How will comments be consolidated and returned to the applicant?
    • Will plans be submitted online and/or in person via USB/CD?
  2. Change to Current Policies
    Current policies are most likely based on a paper plan set being received, routed, and archived. It is very likely that these policies will require updating with a change to electronic submittal and review.
    • Will plans be required to be submitted electronically? For some case types?
    • Will a hard copy plan set still be required?
    • How will final plans be archived?
    • Will an additional fee be charged to offset equipment and hardware costs?
    • Will the fee schedule incentivize electronic submittals?
    • Will staff be required to perform their mark-ups electronically?
  3. Change to Technology Tools
    Drafting tables, light tables, red pens, and rulers are common tools used to support a paper-based environment. Electronic submittal and review will require a different set of tools.
    • Does your current planning/permitting system have the tools to support an electronic workflow?
    • What software and hardware tools will staff use to complete their review?
    • Will all reviewers be required to complete their reviews electronically?
    • How will revised plans be provided to an applicant (e.g., portal, email, etc.)?
    • How will signatures and stamps be applied to electronic plans?
    • How will resubmittals and multiple versions of plans be managed?

Transitioning to an electronic plan submittal and review environment may seem overwhelming, but when done correctly the benefits can be significant. BerryDunn can assist with answering questions related to transitioning to an electronic plan submittal and review environment. Get more information on how BerryDunn can help your agency navigate this here.

Related Industries

Because we’ve been through this process many times, we’ve learned a few lessons and determined some best practices. Here are some tips to help you promote a positive post go-live experience.

The road to go-live is paved with good intentions. When an organization identifies a need to procure a new or upgraded system, that road can be long. It requires extensive planning, building a business case, defining requirements, procuring the system, testing it, and implementing it. Not to mention preparing your team to start using it. You’ve worked really hard to get to this point, and it feels like you’re about to cross the finish line. Well, grab some Gatorade because you’re not quite there yet. Post go-live is your cool-down, and it’s an important part of the race.

Preparation is key.
If you haven’t built a go-live plan into your overall implementation plan, you may see stress levels rise significantly in the days and weeks leading up to go-live. Like a runner prepares for a big race, a project lead must adequately prepare the team to begin using the new system, while still handling unexpected obstacles.  While there are many questions you should ask as you prepare to go live, you need to gain buy-in on the plan from the beginning and manage it to ensure follow-through.

Have your contract and deliverables handy.
Your system vendor implementation team will look to hand you off to their support team soon after go-live. It is crucial that you review all of the deliverables outlined in your contract to ensure all of the agreed-upon functionality is up and running, and all contracted deliverables have been provided and approved. Don’t transition to support until you’ve had enough time to see the system through significant processes (e.g. payroll, month-end close). In the period immediately after go-live, the vendor implementation team is your best resource to help address these issues, so it’s a good idea to have easy access to them.

Encourage use and feedback.
Functional leads and project champions need to continue communications past go-live to encourage use and provide a mechanism for addressing feedback. Employing change management best practices will go a long way in ensuring you use the system properly — and to its best capabilities.

Plan ahead for expanded use and future issues. 
Because a system implementation can be extremely resource-intensive, it is common to suppress or forgo functionality to implement at a later date (e.g., citizen and vendor self-service). In addition, we sometimes see issues arise during significant operational milestones (e.g., renewal processing, year-end close). Have a plan in place to decide how you will address known and unknown issues that arise.

While there is no silver bullet to solve all of the potential go-live woes, you can promote a smooth transition from a legacy system to a new system by implementing these tips. The time you spend up front will help offset many headaches down the road, promote end-user engagement, and ensure you’re getting the most from your investment.

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We're live! Now what?

Read this if you are a City/County Administrator, Building Official, Community Development Director, Planning Director, Development Services Manager or work with customers providing a service for a fee.

Planning and development service fees are, for many municipalities, often discussed but rarely changed. There are a number of reasons you might need to consider or defend your fee structure―complaints from developers, rising costs of operation, and changes in code or process are just a few. 

But when is the right time for a formal review of your service fees? There are several key organizational factors that should prompt an in-depth study of your fees, either internally or with the assistance of an objective advisor. It may be time for an update if:

  • You’re considering a new permitting system. New technology may streamline your workflows, simplify processes for your customers, or necessitate changes in your staffing. All of these secondary changes can impact the cost of your services. In addition, if you’re anticipating significant changes to your fee structure or methodology (e.g., moving to full cost recovery), you’ll want to configure your new system to support that going forward.
  • You have an enterprise development fund. Development fees are collected to cover the cost of providing a service. The methodology you use to charge fees should be based on defensible formulas that can withstand the scrutiny of your customers and cover the cost to provide the service. In addition, reserve funds should be adequate to ensure your development service is funded through the completion of the project. 
  • The regulations in your municipality are changing. Perhaps your organization is moving to a unified or form-based code or making changes to the International Building or Fire Codes. Changes in the process and requirements for development may require a reevaluated fee structure.
  • It’s been a while. Even if your organization is not experiencing any significant or sweeping change, small shifts can accumulate over the years, resulting in significant fee adjustments that may be tough for you to implement and for your customers to understand. Periodically reviewing service demand and benchmarking your individual fees against those of neighboring communities can help to avoid sticker shock.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you may want to consider a fee review, which may consist of benchmarking against similar jurisdictions. Not sure what level of review your organization needs? Our dedicated government consultants include former planners and community development leaders who have walked in your shoes and can talk through the considerations with you.
 

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When time is money: Reviewing your planning and development service fees

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