The Path to a Regional Permitting Solution and the New Normal

ARTICLE | Jun 9, 2015

As any homeowner or contractor would tell you, construction codes and regulations can be a complex web of ever-changing rules and policies that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Something that may initially seem like a simple act – pulling a permit for a hot water heater – becomes a daunting task when you’re working across an entire region. The time spent visiting a permitting office, waiting in line and filling out an application could be better spent.

MyBuildingPermit.com is an innovative, paperless permitting solution for 14 jurisdictions in the Puget Sound area that spans 895,000 residents. It provides a dynamic interface that saves residents and contractors valuable time by allowing them to apply for permits online, track permit status and schedule inspections. In addition, it provides a forum for jurisdictions to work together and improve the permitting experience across boundaries. The participating building officials and permit staff meet regularly to share best practices, align on building standards and develop materials to help residents and builders navigate the permitting process.

In the late 90s, the City of Issaquah, along with the cities of Bellevue, Kirkland and Mercer Island, formed a partnership to provide uniformity between jurisdictions. The partnership focused on creating public handouts and inspection checklists; adopting common ordinances; and providing training for staff and customers.  

For Issaquah, this partnership allowed us to provide exceptional service within our limited resources. We are pleased to offer instant, over-the-counter permits along with electronic plan submittal through one portal. From a simple air conditioner to a multistory high rise, MyBuildingPermit.com is a vital link between the permitting staff and customer.

Full integration with our permitting systems also results in increased consistency and convenience for our staff.

Do you ever have those moments where you look around and realize that something big happened, but it occurred in such a steady and organic way that you don’t even notice? That moment occurred just last month. Our staff was in a meeting and someone made a comment about a permit that came in via paper. There was a unified sigh in the room. Our staff had a complete change of mindset – electronic is the new norm and paper is the exception. Electronic means no more chasing down misplaced plans. No more heavy lifting. No more paper cuts. No more rolling – and rerolling – plans.

So what does it mean to be part of a regional permitting solution? A common misconception is that we simply created a piece of software. We first had to identify what makes the current situation difficult for the customer. Maybe the solution isn’t solved with technology, but instead a tip sheet or a code amendment.

The system itself is the result of a dedicated group of individuals who communicate and work together for the greater good. It is vital that all members understand that joining a regional solution is not simply “purchasing a product.” Instead, it is a decision to be part of the discussion. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in conversations with my neighboring jurisdictions and had “aha” moments. If you’re struggling, you’re not alone!

So the next question always comes up: How do you come together as separate agencies and effectively make decisions? The answer lies in making sure you have the right people on the teams. eCityGov consists of jurisdictions with a huge range in size and demographic, but everyone comes together for the common good. Yes, there is obviously some give and take, but everyone knows we are better as a whole. The fact that MyBuildingPermit.com processed more than 22,500 applications last year demonstrates our success.

I am proud to say that my job to facilitate Issaquah’s transition was much easier thanks to one vital component: our staff’s willingness to learn and change. Before implementing such a huge project, it’s essential to get your team’s buy-in. Our staff knew that electronic review was an inevitable and natural progression of business – and that support was crucial.

Determining success is always an ongoing process. There is no finish line, since technology advances and customer expectations change. We do, however, perform a few key tasks:

  • In-person jurisdiction feedback: Permit employees meet regularly to discuss issues and ideas for improving the existing web portal, while the building officials meet to align on building guidance and discuss larger policy issues.
  • Help desk feedback: Through the help desk logs, we monitor the types of calls that come in to see if there are system issues or customers who need additional guidance in a specific area.
  • Survey and in-person customer feedback: MyBuildingPermit.com publishes an annual survey to capture customer experiences. We also started conducting focus groups to better hear and understand the customer experience.
  • Performance measures: We capture a number of performance measures using both Google analytics and data reported from jurisdictions. We monitor the number of applications coming through, and work to increase the number of online permits. Currently 62 percent of eligible applications for the 14 jurisdictions are submitted through MyBuildingPermit.com. Since the site’s inception in 2002, more than 100,000 permits have gone through the portal. Usage continues to grow – in the past year we’ve seen a 28 percent increase in permits issued and 130 percent increase in users.

We are currently laying the groundwork for quite a few enhancements in 2015-16, which will:

  • Streamline the registration process
  • Provide additional payment options
  • Enhance the registered basic application process
  • Make it easier to add multiple permits
  • Improve the website look/feel

Each week, I hear new ideas and suggestions for our next phase. The enthusiasm and passion of our team is palpable – and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.

 

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