Dear Management Doctor: 

Can you recommend either off-the-shelf software or a computer consultant who specializes in databases specifically for planning board applications? My office has been using a standard database program which is now starting to sputter (too many columns of data and now too many lines). It's the software; our hardware is fine. I have been looking for a cutting edge program with bells and whistles but haven't been satisfied with what I've come across. We would like to tie in GIS, inspections, permitting, and even paperless internet based applications if possible.

Can you recommend a database program tailor-made for land-use and development applications? If one doesn't exist, can you recommend a computer consultant who does this sort of work.


Stephen D. Marks
Hudson County, New Jersey

Dear Steve,

There are roughly 20 to 25 software programs on the market designed for building and planning processes. Most of these can be configured to accommodate your specific requirements for tracking Planning Board land use applications. A few of these are excellent, many are troublesome. As we all know, the field of computers and software is changing rapidly. Some of the vendors are not keeping up with the changes and are still pedaling old, out-of-date programs. We have had very good experiences with a few of these and very bad experiences with others.

One of the most wildly marketed and supposedly up-to-date programs has troubled a number of our clients because of poorly-tested programming glitches and lack of good vendor support.

A high percent of the organizations that are having problems are repeating the same mistakes including:

  • Not adequately checking references from customers using the software.
  • Not having adequate local technology support.
  • Not devoting enough time to training of staff.
  • Going live before the bugs are worked out.
  • Assuming the software will solve all the organization or process issues.
We are reluctant to critique specific software in our publications since we have to work with both good and bad programs and vendors in our studies. I suggest that you contact us and we will gladly connect you with our technology expert who can be more specific.

We are currently working with a county who had purchased one of the earlier programs on the market and one that many of our clients found troubling. The county now likes the program but said they made so many changes you wouldn't recognize it as the same program. Another one of our clients had the same program and found a consultant who specialized in fixing that software which solved many of their problems. Why many of the vendors themselves don't seem to be capable or willing to do this is beyond me.

A few guidelines for any software you consider:

  • It should be capable of working across all related departments. Some of the programs were written for building permits and seem to have problems when expanded to planning and engineering functions.
  • It should have an easy interface with GIS.
  • It should work well with electronic plan submittal and plan check, and field computers since this is the future and the future is now.
  • It should measure and report on performance standards. City time and applicant time should be separated and measurements should be made for multiple project cycles.
You can find more in my new book, The ABZs of Planning Management Second Edition, Chapter 22 on Technology.

Best wishes and let us know what you find.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Just thought I'd contribute to the discussion of permitting and plan review software, hardware, etc. Here's an interesting bit of software that could conceivably make the work of electronic plan reviewing simpler and easier, while reducing the need for expensive over-sized monitors.  It's called "Synergy" and is available for free (yes, free).
Disclaimer: I have no connection with anyone associated with this software; I have never used this software; I cannot guarantee the fitness of this software for any particular application; and neither I, nor my employer assume any responsibility for any loss, damage, or calamity of any kind resulting from the use of this software.

Jeff Sovich, AICP
Greensboro, NC

I subscribe to the e-newsletter, and I'd like to share some advice for Stephen Marks from Hudson County.

The City of Edmonton (Alberta, Canada; 750,000 people) uses POSSE, made by Computronix:

POSSE allows you to tie information to particular addresses via GIS. POSSE assigns every permit, complaint, ticket, inspection and land development application with an individual "job" ID code (e.g., 123456789-001). If the "job" ever requires some additional work to be done in the future (e.g., a follow-up inspection or a development appeal), one can create a "subjob" under the existing number (e.g., 123456789-002).

The software is also designed to be a workflow management system, so you can check in on any file at any time to see which planner, inspector, or manager is working on it.

Electronic documents and notes can be attached to each job. Smaller PDF files (e.g., a scanned permit) are generally ok, but from experience, the software can get really bogged down when trying to attach very large maps/air photos, or 100MB+ environmental site assessments.

Keep up the good work, and have a great day.

Myron Belej
Edmonton, CA

The City I work for invested in one of those "off-the-shelf" packages once. It was reported, as all are, to "do it all" with relative ease. "We will customize it to fit your needs." The software we got is provided by one of the companies you would likely receive a proposal from should you seek out the usual suspects. In our case, the Building Department took the lead for building permits and Planning didn't start to use it for planning cases for several years later. It worked and still works well for them, but when Planning decided it was time, there was a modest amount of challenges. We have been successful, more or less, but it has taken several years to adjust the workflow, and inadequacies in the system still plague us.

We have several full-time IT people devoted to the system who have customized it over the years to make it work better for us. Without them, the software would be the tail wagging the dog. It is an investment to say the very least. The company now is going web-based and they want to host it on their secure servers. Given the level of customization we have done and the fact that years of data would be "theirs" to house, the whole concept is problematic. Our system is not GIS ready, but our highly skilled GIS team fixed that on their own and we use the GIS system to display the permit data for both in-house and web applications. We input data in the permit system and do a lot of viewing of it with the GIS applications. It is very slick, but it requires a fair amount of routine maintenance, but it is well worth it. Moving to the web-hosted method may cut these ties and we can't do that now. Electronic plan submittal is an entirely different discussion with its own complexities. It is tough to get everyone to settle on the format and some architects still draw by hand. It seems like a simple thing, but it is complex and appropriate hardware and software for electronic plan review can be costly.

Whatever system you pick, be sure that any department who will use it is in on its selection and development. Be prepared to provide significant support staff for the long-term. You must visit several other agencies to see it in action and bring one of your IT gurus and a GIS expert with you. Spend more time talking to the permit technicians than the managers as the data is only as good as what is put in. Make sure you can access the data directly from the database without the proprietary software interface. You will be sorry if you don't. Lastly, don't let IT be the final decision maker as what works better for them might not work well enough for you.

James Campbell
Senior Planner from a medium sized So. Cal. City

The Massachusetts Regional Planning Association did a report on software packages available for planning offices in 2007. It includes profiles of more than a dozen systems, a list of communities using those systems (and the grade the communities give the systems based on their experiences) and other information. The link to the report is below:

Robert P. Mitchell, FAICP
Boston, MA

Here is an unscientific, unranked listing of permitting software vendors:

Mac Birch

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