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working on building permit process

It’s a common refrain from citizens and contractors to their local governments: Why is it taking so long to get my permit approved?

The reasons vary, but overall, permit approval processes can be overwhelming, even for seasoned contractors. That can lead to problems, such as: 

  • Companies may be less likely to build in your community
  • Fewer projects mean less revenue from fees and property taxes
  • The harder it is to get a permit, the less likely builders are to ask permission
  • The more complex the review/approval process is, the more staff you need working on it

Consider these six steps to meaningfully improve your agency or department’s permit approval process.

Create a Checklist

A significant source of delays comes from the back-and-forth required when handling incomplete or incorrect applications. The easiest way to get the info you need for an application is to clarify what you need.

Do you need floor plans? Insurance certificates? The names of certified, licensed professionals? These details should be crystal clear, so applicants can pull the information together in advance. This will reduce confusion and time-consuming email exchanges.

Bonus tip: Include a brief rationale for each item. If a contractor sees they need a health inspection certificate before applying because the state requires it, they won’t have to call you to ask why or complain. You could even link to the state’s health inspection request form. (If it’s online.) 

The more you can do to help them give you the information you need, the smoother the process will be.

Design a Flowchart

A powerful way to understand how a process works, and what’s needed at each step, is to visualize it as a flowchart. 

First, list every step, department, role, and “trigger” (actions taken in different scenarios) that make up your permit process workflow. Be as detailed as you can. 

Create two flowcharts: a simple overview of the process and a detailed outline, giving each step more context or explanation. 

The simple flowchart will be minimal, showing only the key steps and indicating when the applicant must be engaged (deadlines, inspections, etc.). 

The detailed flowchart will include every step, even those not necessarily relevant to the applicant. For example, include when a manager will prepare the application materials for submission to the review board, even though contractors may only care when it goes, not how. 

The detailed flowchart should note which individual roles are engaged in each step, how decisions are made regarding which actions to take (such as “send back to applicant if violation is discovered”), and typical timelines for completing each step.

Review and Improve Where Possible

Don’t stop at a flowchart! Now that you have a comprehensive view of how things work today, it’s a great opportunity to look for improvements. 

Use the information you’ve gathered to identify typical timelines and bottlenecks. Where do the most significant mistakes and delays happen? Why? Are there redundant steps? Can tasks be delegated or reorganized to be more efficient? Are there confusing or complicated steps? How can you improve them? 

Asking yourself and your team these questions leads to ideas and potential changes. You should keep track of everything; you could even create an internal working group to begin the work of re-imaging your existing workflows. Don’t forget to include your frontline team’s input and insights from actual applicants. 

Keep sharing the flowchart, even while you’re making improvements. Change takes time, and the flowchart is still useful.

Leverage the Technology You're Already Using

We’ve looked at improving your workflow efficiency without implementing new technologies (and we’ll get to that in a moment). However, even if your processes still involve paper and in-person meetings, you’re probably using some technology. Now’s the time to see if you can use it better. 

Using your list, identify the applications or systems involved, no matter how mundane they seem. For example, you’re probably using email, PDFs, online forms, spreadsheets, and databases. Note each one alongside the relevant step in your list. 

Explore how these technologies can improve the process. You can often discover ideas by talking to the individuals involved. What frustrates them? How do they wish things worked? Are there common complaints from applicants or staff? Do they have experience from previous roles you could learn from? 

Identify the highest-value, lowest-effort changes you could make. For example, you might convert a PDF application form to a web-based form, so it gets automatically sent to a staff person versus having to be printed and mailed or delivered in person. Or maybe you can share access to a folder on your server, so documents don’t have to be emailed back and forth. 

Make an action plan and implement it! Engage the community so they know you’re working to make things better and aren’t surprised by changes that might affect them.

Connect Your Existing Systems

In your review of your existing systems, you may have come up with some great ideas that were unfortunately complex. 

For example, say you recognized the benefit of allowing applicants to pay their permit fees online. Your invoices are stored digitally in your financial software, and you use a payment processor with an online payments feature. The problem is that you must enter the invoice details into the payment processor manually, so applicants must call or come to the office to make payments. 

In this and many other situations, what you need is a way to connect your two systems so they share information. You need to integrate them. 

Most new software applications have pre-built connectors for other popular solutions or have an API (application programming interface) that enables developers to program the connectors and create integrations. Check with your software providers or a technology consultant to see what’s possible—and almost anything is possible with technology. 

Integrating two applications is powerful. The problem is that it’s time-consuming and expensive to continually develop and maintain connections between the many applications you already have and the new ones you’ll add. 

Fortunately, there’s a type of application called an integration platform as a service, or iPaaS. An iPaaS acts as a centralized connection point for as many applications as you need and opens incredible functionality with the software you already own and use daily. 

The Saltbox Platform is Vision33’s iPaaS. Saltbox enables you to see and manage every connection you have among your entire software stack. Its ‌user-friendly interface makes it easy for even non-technical users to build new integrations and automate tasks without writing code. 

If you’re interested, you can learn more about the Saltbox iPaaS and watch a demo in this webinar.

Implement an Enterprise Solution

A valuable aspect of the above steps is that they force you to critically analyze how your permit process works and how it can be improved. Much of it is about making small, incremental changes that can lead to great results. 

However, your agency might need something more comprehensive, like an enterprise solution. 

A government enterprise solution is essentially a pre-built system you can install and configure to digitize and manage a wide range of processes. “Digitizing” processes means you’ll be able to enhance how you do your work and how the public interacts with your agency. 

For example, if you used an enterprise solution to digitize your building permit application process, you could do things like: 

  • Avoid errors and incomplete applications by making the input of certain details required before applications can be submitted
  • Give your team the ability to work on the same application from a central location instead of sharing files by email or scheduling multiple meetings
  • Quickly check on the status of reviews or inspections without contacting the person they’ve been assigned to
  • Keep applicants up to date on the status of their application by giving them a “citizen portal” account and sending automated emails when tasks are completed 

The most popular enterprise solutions, including Amanda and Accela, have been built and improved over decades based on the real-world needs of government agencies throughout North America. This means you can implement a solution that includes a wealth of features that are useful out of the box and is also highly configurable to work exactly as you need. 

To learn more about how an enterprise solution might be a good fit for your needs or to explore the potential of any technology solution for your government agency, please contact us. We’d love to chat!