October: Technology – Don’t Expect It To Solve All Your Problems


These good economic times, along with many communities’ wishes to be more development-friendly, have led to a rash of communities acquiring new permitting software. For a larger city or county, just to get in the door is likely to cost a million dollars or more, but much larger numbers are common. For example, San Diego is about to spend $11 million; Kansas City, $7.0 million; and San Bernardino County, $1.7 million. Virtually all of our clients are either in the midst of installing a new system or about to purchase one.

Most elected officials seem to assume that once they authorize the expenditure and purchase this software that all of their development problems will disappear – how wrong they are!

A Disclaimer

We agree that any medium to large sized community must have one of the new, multi-department “enterprise” systems allowing for internet permit acceptance, electronic plan check, and robust field computers or tablets used by many different departments throughout the jurisdiction. But we see, over and over again, a lack of attention or resources for proper implementation and, more disconcertingly, a lack of users actually using the system as it is intended.

Bottom line, you need this tool but remember it is just a tool, it will not solve all of your problems or improvement needs.

Been There, Done That

Most of our clients have one of the earlier versions of a vendor’s permitting software but often experience one or all of the following problems:

  • The systems were originally implemented to support the building permit functions, and the planners have refused to expand it for planning use. The same is true of other departments such as public works and fire, who could readily use the same system.
  • The systems are only partially used. Some staff continue with their hand notes, check lists, or even have separate Excel spreadsheets rather than rely on the system.
  • Even when the data is in the system, most managers never make full use that data and don’t understand how data can help them improve their operations. We have interviewed many managers and found a large stack of system printouts on their desk that they never look at.
  • Likewise, many managers don’t understand that they can query the system to answer many of their questions. For example, one of our recent clients and elected officials were concerned about backlogs of permits. The managers didn’t know how to calculate backlog. (See my ABZs of Planning Management book to see the formula to do this.) We showed the department’s technology support staff the formula and they quickly developed a report providing the needed data.
  • “Garbage in – garbage out” is an old saying that applies to many of these systems. We will often ask for special data runs and reports as we are doing for our consulting work. Often, when we look at the data, there are obvious errors. It may be “garbage in,” but it may also be “nothing in,” making the data unreliable.

Issues With The New System

We see many communities addressing the following issues with their new system.

  • When selecting and implementing a new system, the first question is how many departments or functions should be included?  At a minimum it should include building, planning, fire, and public works. Other likely departments include the Clerk, Parks, and various utilities. Keep in mind that as the number of departments increase, so do the licensing and implementation costs. However, anyone who reviews plans needs to be included. Kansas City included the following 10 departments: Planning and Development, Finance, Fire, Health, Human Relations, Information Technology, Neighborhood and Community Services, Parks & Recreation, Public Works, and Water Services. San Mateo City’s implementation included Land Use, Public Works, County Fire, Clerk of the Board, Public Health, County Counsel, Economic Development, Assessor, Special District, and Real Estate Services.
  • The next question concerns which modules will be purchased. Most permit software vendors provide various modules; and the need for these will vary by the community. Again, however, the more modules, the higher the cost. We have worked with a number of clients that, in an attempt to contain costs, didn’t buy the needed modules.
  • Installation support is the next question. Many communities assume the vendor will provide the needed support. We have seldom found that to be true. The contract with the vendor will likely indicate the amount of support, but even then it is often not sufficient.  The local IT department is then generally tasked with local implementation. We were working with a major city’s $7 million installation and asked the IT manager who was to be in charge and the answer was 60% of her time, obviously not enough. Another smaller city we consulted with had one full time person plus other support staff from IT.
  • New systems require substantial amount of staff training time. Take what you start with and then double it and you may be about right.
  • Staff will be involved in learning the new system which will take away from their normal work schedules. A good approach is to allow some backfilling of positions and supplemental staff while the new system is being learned. We have seen two of our clients follow this approach.
  • All the processes should be included in and measured in the system. Desired performance standards should be included for each process. When any process goes through multiple cycles, a different performance standard and measurement should be included for each process. We normally recommend that the timeline for each cycle be cut in half, i.e. if first cycle is 20 days, second cycle is 10 days, and third cycle is 5 days.
  • Times should be measured in business days, not calendar days.
  • For most functions, averages should not be used. The question should not be, what was the average time to process a certain type of permit. Rather, what percent of the permits made our pre-set performance standard.
  • The system needs to accept all plans electronically over the internet, provide for the use of credit cards, include good ties to GIS and Assessor data, and allow easy interface with field computers or tablets.
  • Electronically submitted plans will require electronic plan check software. Some vendors have this integral to their system, others rely on a third party vendor. As with the entire system, substantial training is required to transition from paper to electronic screens and mark-up.
  • Many of the system vendors require the client to add on the reporting systems to be used by managers, for dashboards, and for staff monitoring. If these are not supplied by the main vendor, they need to be added into the budget.

Final Word

Remember, a permitting system, although essential, is just a tool. You could have the world’s best technology and still not have a well operating department.

the Management Doctor