Short-Term Consultants Trend Highlights Long-Term Permitting Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic created massive permitting backlogs for many Community Development and Planning Agencies across North America. Spurred by a spike in home renovations at the same time many development agencies were having to lay off staff and/or struggling to transition to an efficient online permitting model, the post-pandemic permitting landscape in many cities red flagged too many permit applications and not enough people to process them.

Jurisdictions currently dealing with these permitting backlogs include:

Burnaby, BCCape Coral, FLADallas, TXDenver, CO
Honolulu, HILondon, ONNorfolk County, VARegina, SK
San Diego, CASan Francisco, CATucson, AZWhite Rock, BC

To clear these backlogs, many development agencies are turning to third-party consultants to ramp up their plan review resources in the short-term while simultaneously attempting to fast-track new hires to add more permanent staff. Making the situation even more urgent is recent legislation passed in numerous jurisdictions requiring agencies to complete permit approvals within set timelines with hefty fines possible for those agencies unable to achieve the necessary efficiency standards.

The situation has become so dire, some jurisdictions are now considering a drastic reinvention of the permitting model akin to the United Kingdom where the responsibility for building safety and code compliance is transferred from civic building officials and inspectors to the architectural, building, and engineering communities. A comparable self-certification model already exists in New York City where the Department of Buildings randomly audits 20% of self-certified plans, and architects can lose their professional certification privileges or endure harsher penalties for failure to comply with building codes.

While the drive to overcome permitting backlogs with additional workforce (whether consultants or new hires or both) is understandable, the vast majority of Community Development Agencies recognize the tactic for what it is—a temporary short-term fix for a systemic long-term problem. For years, permitting processes across North America have been plagued by several factors that contribute to innate inefficiency. Alone, each of these factors is prohibitive. In tandem, they create the type of permitting gridlock that is currently stifling the ability of multiple jurisdictions to expediently address the building demands of the affordable housing crisis.

Contributing Factors to Systemic Permitting Delays

These factors break down as follows:

  • The central issue for many jurisdictions is a reliance on outdated and underperforming permitting software. Reliance on antiquated permitting software systems contributes directly to several inefficiency factors such as:
    • Confusing and inconsistent development codes,
    • Ineffective planning and approval workflows,
    • Poor system transparency impeding information flow and stakeholder collaboration,
    • Subpar user experiences resulting in incomplete or incorrect submissions, with built-in delays from a subsequent lack of process automation and notification triggers. In essence, modern robust permitting software is the critical foundation upon which all other policy, process, and permitting efficiencies reside. Without this key platform in place, an agency is simply throwing more workforce at inefficient processes anytime external market conditions create a new permitting backlog.
  • Confusion surrounding development applications and code requirements is a common complaint among many jurisdictions who recognize that their agency is long overdue for a detailed business process audit and code consolidation effort. Here again, outdated permitting software impedes the agency’s efforts to improve efficiency, with the existing software unable to easily reconfigure planning and permitting workflows to accommodate more streamlined processes. The inevitable result of such systems is process ‘workarounds’ which is just a kindler, gentler way of describing intrinsic system failings that prevent an organization from achieving its efficiency goals. Simply documenting each workaround, where and how they happen, can help your agency to build a shadow process map confirming the bottlenecks where inefficiencies most commonly occur.
  • As is always the case, poor communication is a contributing factor in organizational inefficiency. In the case of planning and permitting approvals involving multiple stage reviews with numerous stakeholders involved, the potential for communication errors to create subsequent delays is exponential. In just one example, several departments involving in permit reviews frequently gave conflicting interpretations of the same building codes when reviewing applications. In this particular jurisdiction, one department could approve a proposed design while another mandated significant alterations.
  • In addition to inter and intra agency communication issues, the greatest potential for communication errors resides between the permit applicant and agency stakeholders processing these submissions. Especially for jurisdictions lacking a modern application portal that assists applicants to provide accurate and complete submissions, the permitting processes can be fraught with systemic delays from the start. In these instances, incomplete or inaccurate submissions kick off a ping pong match where applications are frequently bounced back for corrections and internal review staff grow increasingly frustrated with the system’s inability to fully communicate the code requirements and guide the information being entered.
  • Finally, for development agencies across North America, challenges on the recruitment front continue to hamper efforts to expedite permitting outcomes, with the building compliance industry as a whole suffering from a ‘greying out’ trend that is reducing the number of new candidates entering the field. More than anything, the prospect of less human resources in the future highlights the importance of having the appropriate technology solution in place to automate more of the critical processes required to achieve optimal permitting efficiency.

Core Fixes For Systemic Permitting Delays

Given the above issues, it’s clear that simply throwing more bodies at the problem to clear permitting backlogs is not the ideal long-term solution. For those jurisdictions focused on solving the problem once and for all, the following fixes should be prioritized accordingly:

  • A modern planning and permitting software system should be implemented to replace outdated and underperforming systems that are directly contributing to an inability to equip all stakeholders to exchange information accurately, collaborate transparently, and progress critical tasks efficiently.
  • In conjunction with your new permitting system, a robust change management process should be undertaken within the organization to fully leverage the capabilities of your new software to facilitate newly streamlined business processes and building codes. While feature rich solutions like POSSE PLS offer best practices workflows ‘out-of-the-box’ to expedite permitting and planning outcomes, the configuration capabilities of the underlying POSSE Platform further equips agencies to extend the utility of the solution into other enterprise functions. Doing so increases the value of the system over time thus defraying ownership costs in the long-term—a clear win for IT and Procurement Departments.
  • Concurrent with change management efforts to achieve organizational transformation, Community Development Agencies should focus extensively on the collaborative planning processes that modern software systems provide to increase effective engagement between building officials and the development community. Fully integrated solutions like POSSE ePlans create an accessible and transparent planning environment where all stakeholders can monitor the progress and revision of plan submissions. These interactions are guided by optimized workflows designed to keep applications progressing towards timely approval with automated notifications and deadline focused task triggers.
  • To achieve optimal permitting efficiencies, agencies that are not doing so already should embrace an output centric culture focusing everyone in the organization on the ongoing achievement of a select group of clear output measures. Here too a modern permitting system can pay immediate dividends facilitating the necessary infrastructure to create organizational data availability with robust ad hoc reporting capabilities populating rich data-driven dashboards.
  • On the recruitment side, deploying modern technology creates a win/win scenario empowering agencies to achieve greater permitting output despite human resource constraints while simultaneously making the agency more attractive to hiring candidates keen to utilize the latest technologies. Further, by eliminating frustrating and time-consuming manual processes intrinsic to outdated systems, agencies are better positioned to empower staff as true knowledge workers, focusing their efforts on more challenging and impactful tasks which helps to greatly reduce staff turnover over time.
  • Finally, agencies experiencing consistent permitting backlogs must be proactive in their efforts to get the right policies in place WITH the appropriate policy tools to achieve them. Policy often dictates process, meaning that with the wrong policies, government agencies can achieve technically correct outcomes without solving any real problems. In jurisdictions such as Dallas, New York, Vancouver, and Ontario, policy levers are being enacted to ensure subsequent technology investments will benefit from a top down effort to identify root cause goals and objectives that will inform subsequent efforts to streamline the infrastructure of building codes, permitting and planning software, operational workflows, and citizen services, that comprise the entirety of a jurisdiction’s planning and permitting efforts.

Next Steps

For those jurisdictions bold enough to take the critical first step to solve one of the most pressing issues of our time, we invite you to schedule a Discovery Demo to see how our proven POSSE PLS solution can help to solve your housing affordability and permitting issues quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.