The Challenges of Transitioning to Electronic Permitting

Nomad

Well-known member
Aug 26, 2023
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These days a lot of people believe that electronic permit processes are far superior to the old school paper-based workflows that used to be standard and commonplace. However, electronic permitting also has huge challenges. This has been highlighted by Scott Cohen, the President of The Green Scene. He explained how challenging the transition to electronic permitting has been in Los Angeles. Due to the nature of electronic submission and review, what used to take a day now takes three months. According to Cohen this delay in the permit process can be tackled only through a full-time permit runner with expertise.

If you want to learn more about the challenges of electronic permitting, you can check out this article.
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Location
Los Angeles, California, United States
What I don't get is, if they can handle paper permits, how come they can't figure out a digital system? A digital system should be more automated, faster, more precise. Yet every time I hear of issues like this, they say it's taking them longer to clear permits. I would imagine paper permitting is a slower process, considering you may have to mail them, or hand deliver them. But through a digital platform it's all about submitting, and sending. These permitting offices should have workers on hand who can go over permits as they come in.
 
Interesting!
My jurisdiction encourages electronic submittals, but we're not 100% there yet. We are actually in the process of a software conversion & should be going live in October.
I'm worried mostly about my demographic, the elderly who "don't do computers" or the contractors who come in with plans and "can't send them electronically."
It's going to be rough, but I think for the most part everything will be streamlined. Fingers crossed, anyway.
 
I find the challenging part of transitioning is having the time to scan and input archived files into digital files for record retention and record requests. My jurisdiction has an influx of new developments that leaves us with very little time to convert files while still processing new submittals. We also currently encourage electronic submittals by email with digital plans while we are in the process of finding a new software to transition completely over to an electronic permitting system. We also deal with a lot of contractors who just "don't do computers" but taking the time and walking them through the process along with providing them with SOP's has been a game changer for our office. I think electronic submittals will streamline our intake/outtake process with the right software.
 
We transferred to all digital a year ago. We have customers that are not computer savvy, and we still assist them in the office, but on our counter computer, so it's still digital. The transition was tough, because some of it was still on paper until the project finished. We are a small jurisdiction though, so it's a bit different. We also hire out to third party reviewers, so going digital made things much easier for us and them.
 
I find the challenging part of transitioning is having the time to scan and input archived files into digital files for record retention and record requests.

We started our "electronic office" transition back in 2015 and the work to scan all those old paper files is still ongoing. Spreading the effort out over 10+ years and tackling it in ~5-year chunks has definitely made the effort much more manageable than if we'd tried to do it all at once.

Our push to go all-electronic was also heavily financially motivated. Most of those filing cabinets were occupying expensive floorspace in our downtown LA office. Freeing up all that square footage has allowed us reduce the number of floors we're leasing in downtown LA, literally saving the government millions.
 
We transferred to all digital a year ago. We have customers that are not computer savvy, and we still assist them in the office, but on our counter computer, so it's still digital.
Have you found those clients eager to learn the system, or are they content to let you guys handle the digital side of things? I think it's interesting that you guys still find it easier to use digital filing, despite having some clients who lack computer skills. I think I would as well.
 
We first went to a digital system in 2015 that was still taking in paper apps, scanning them but all of our inspections and reviews were done digitally. In 2022 we transitioned to an all digital process with a portal for submissions. This system has probably cut our review period in half.

We have included other departments and agencies in our process to make it a bit more of one stop shop. We also as mentioned have not so computer savvy people that come into our office for help. This has cut down on the foot traffic in the office.
 
What I don't get is, if they can handle paper permits, how come they can't figure out a digital system? A digital system should be more automated, faster, more precise. Yet every time I hear of issues like this, they say it's taking them longer to clear permits. I would imagine paper permitting is a slower process, considering you may have to mail them, or hand deliver them. But through a digital platform it's all about submitting, and sending. These permitting offices should have workers on hand who can go over permits as they come in.
Maybe they lack the manpower to handle the digital permit system, maybe they do not have the right skills to use the digital permit system. Or maybe they are just used to manual system and they are not accustomed to the digital system yet. There could be a lot of reasons. Transitioning can also be a difficult choice.
 
We first went to a digital system in 2015 that was still taking in paper apps, scanning them but all of our inspections and reviews were done digitally. In 2022 we transitioned to an all digital process with a portal for submissions. This system has probably cut our review period in half.

It sounds like your staff were having to scan all the incoming paper files? Or were you using a scanning service? Back when we were still operating under a hybrid paper/digital policy, I'd scan hard copy submittals here and there but it was so time-consuming. I'd usually end up just requesting the applicant send over the PDFs and that's what I'd save in our admin record.

Glad to hear you ultimately went 100% digital in 2022. We made the jump in 2020 and it was really COVID that forced our hand. Most of our ~50 employees work out of our downtown LA office but live in the surrounding cities and suburbs. With the entire organization teleworking fulltime during COVID, it would have been logistically challenging to get paper submittals into everyone's hands as they were received. We pretty much had no choice but to go all-electronic at that point - and we never looked back.
 
We started our "electronic office" transition back in 2015 and the work to scan all those old paper files is still ongoing. Spreading the effort out over 10+ years and tackling it in ~5-year chunks has definitely made the effort much more manageable than if we'd tried to do it all at once.

Our push to go all-electronic was also heavily financially motivated. Most of those filing cabinets were occupying expensive floorspace in our downtown LA office. Freeing up all that square footage has allowed us reduce the number of floors we're leasing in downtown LA, literally saving the government millions.
I didn't know it took so long to digitize so much, but then again I suppose it makes sense when there's so much history you have to digitize. Are there any things you skip when digitizing? Or do you digitize everything from start to finish?

It makes sense to go that route, especially when space is becoming limited.
 
Maybe they lack the manpower to handle the digital permit system, maybe they do not have the right skills to use the digital permit system. Or maybe they are just used to manual system and they are not accustomed to the digital system yet. There could be a lot of reasons. Transitioning can also be a difficult choice.
Based on my experience, there is a fairly significant shakedown period before electronic permit systems function as intended. Unfortunately, funding to create what can be a complex electronic system frequently does not consider the continuing work that will be necessary after the system goes public. An OLD example I remember quite clearly was an early electronic air permitting system in Wisconsin for new Title V permits. It would run a pre-submittal QA check that rejected so many applications - in my case it would not allow more than one stack or vent per process. Planned shakedown and correction would have taken care of that.
 
Based on my experience, there is a fairly significant shakedown period before electronic permit systems function as intended. Unfortunately, funding to create what can be a complex electronic system frequently does not consider the continuing work that will be necessary after the system goes public. An OLD example I remember quite clearly was an early electronic air permitting system in Wisconsin for new Title V permits. It would run a pre-submittal QA check that rejected so many applications - in my case it would not allow more than one stack or vent per process. Planned shakedown and correction would have taken care of that.
That makes sense, they will probably want to make sure the system works before releasing it. And yeah, that system sounds horrible.

You'd think these days they'd figure out how to make a working electronic permitting system. Especially with how tech is advancing more and more these days. Do you see something like AI ever being used to help with this?
 
There are numerous issues of electronic permit systems. Technical difficulties might be the most common thing but there are also issues such as cybersecurity risks and user accessibility challenges. It is very important to develop a reliable and secured system as well as user-friendly interfaces to build effective electronic permit systems.
 
We just implemented our electronic system in January of 2022. It's gone smoothly for the most part with the exception of older contractors who don't do the computer thing. Most of those have had children or grandchildren help them. Also, the same people don't love having to request all of the inspections online as well, but it sure has helped clear up the phone lines in our office and allow us to utilize that time for other things.
 
Our department began implementing EnerGov in November 2020 and we are still working out many of the kinks. Luckily, these have not affected our turnaround times so customers do not feel an impact. I think jurisdictions can do a better job of making sure their electronic permitting systems improve the customer experience. Technology shouldn't be slowing us down.

Also, I read the linked article from the original post and that guy sounds like my least favorite customers. I know jurisdictions aren't perfect, but whenever I tell a customer about a required item for a submittal and they reply with "This isn't required" it drives me crazy.
 
Our department began implementing EnerGov in November 2020 and we are still working out many of the kinks. Luckily, these have not affected our turnaround times so customers do not feel an impact. I think jurisdictions can do a better job of making sure their electronic permitting systems improve the customer experience. Technology shouldn't be slowing us down.

Also, I read the linked article from the original post and that guy sounds like my least favorite customers. I know jurisdictions aren't perfect, but whenever I tell a customer about a required item for a submittal and they reply with "This isn't required" it drives me crazy.
That's great news, because it sounds like for some permitting offices, it's not nearly as smooth a process. And you're right, tech shouldn't be slowing us down, it should if anything, speed things up.

I'm glad to hear that it hasn't affected the time it takes to file with your department. :)
 
That makes sense, they will probably want to make sure the system works before releasing it. And yeah, that system sounds horrible.

You'd think these days they'd figure out how to make a working electronic permitting system. Especially with how tech is advancing more and more these days. Do you see something like AI ever being used to help with this?
My only direct experience with AI has been to improve my Spanish, and I was not impressed. That being said, I suppose one day AI could possible be smart enough to evaluate application programming versus real-world air permits and current regulations. Considering there could be health risk as teh result of AI misinterpretation, I would still think that additional human review would be necessary for the foreseeable future. Caveat: I am old and grumpy about AI.
 
These days a lot of people believe that electronic permit processes are far superior to the old school paper-based workflows that used to be standard and commonplace. However, electronic permitting also has huge challenges. This has been highlighted by Scott Cohen, the President of The Green Scene. He explained how challenging the transition to electronic permitting has been in Los Angeles. Due to the nature of electronic submission and review, what used to take a day now takes three months. According to Cohen this delay in the permit process can be tackled only through a full-time permit runner with expertise.
AdobeStock_423466392.jpeg


If you want to learn more about the challenges of electronic permitting, you can check out this article.
I think that they both have there own challenges. The city I work for has not fully implemented fully online submissions although that is the goal, it quite has not happened to due issues with our platform and having to outsource some of the problems we face. We encourage electronic submittals but will take paper and we will scan the documents if needed. To combat issues with demographics we do offer a desktop in our lobby. Just remember - you cannot please everyone.
 
I think that they both have there own challenges. The city I work for has not fully implemented fully online submissions although that is the goal, it quite has not happened to due issues with our platform and having to outsource some of the problems we face. We encourage electronic submittals but will take paper and we will scan the documents if needed. To combat issues with demographics we do offer a desktop in our lobby. Just remember - you cannot please everyone.
Yes, you cannot please everyone and electronic permit process and manual permitting process both have challenges. But ultimately, switching fully to electronic permit will be better compared to manual process as people could do it form the comfort of their own home and track their applications through their smartphone.
 
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