Building Permit Processes: No lines, no waiting, build today

Building Departments are often characterized by bureaucratic permit processes, red tape, and constant delays.  But change is in the air as many departments take advantage of online permit processes, improved customer service, digital plan reviews, remote inspections, and nimble organizational structures.

Digital technologies to improve permit processes

The digital revolution is beginning to transform the government sector.  I have been a part of that revolution at several agencies over the past decade.  For example, NYC’s HUB Self Service was established to offer same day permit issuance for professionally certified permit applications under my guidance.  The mantra of “no lines, no waiting, build today” resonated well with the customers. Stamford’s Building Department has also been making steady improvements with the help of process changes and online permitting since my arrival there several years ago. 

Not your father's building department
Not your father’s building department 1

The aging workforce and staff shortages

The International Code Council (ICC) painted a bleak picture in a recent report, where it stated that the aging work force nearing retirement age is a real concern for building departments.  In addition, many building departments often find themselves short staffed and ill-equipped to deal with sudden influx of major projects such as a big box store or an apartment building. To deal with such challenges, building departments must have agile organizational structures consisting of talented core staff with an ability to expand rapidly in response to unique short term needs. 

Complex building systems
Complex building systems require skilled staff 2

Shared purpose and vision

An agile organization must have a shared vision that ties all stakeholders and customers together.  This is accomplished by first developing a vision and then sharing it with all parties such that it becomes a part of the DNA.  As an intensely customer focused organization, a building department must continuously strive to meet the evolving needs of customers, stakeholders, and partners.  I was able to use the vision statement effectively in articulating the needs for resources to the Stamford’s elected officials.

Bridging the skills gap

Building inspectors and code officials come from a variety of fields such as architecture, engineering, construction management and various construction trades. Since there is no clear career path, considerable training is required to turn a new staff member into a successful code official. In addition to staff training, an agile organization must replace traditional hierarchy with dynamic, flexible, and scalable network of teams.  Such teams should be empowered to try new things to improve productivity and be able to seamlessly integrate new technologies to meet emerging needs.  For example, as the pandemic hit us suddenly, Stamford’s team was able to deliver high level of customer service by taking advantage of digital plan reviews, remote inspections, and online permit processes. 

Organizational culture and sense of ownership

It is important to empower staff to take ownership of their work.  Instead of relying on outdated rules and hierarchy, the focus should be on creating a cohesive community with a culture of responsibility, mutual trust, and accountability.  In Stamford’s case, simple things such as matching responsibilities with job titles, giving opportunities for professional development, collaborating with third party reviewers and daily team meetings were instrumental in creating a culture of trust and accountability. 

  1. Not your father’s building department.  Mike Dickison (@adzebill), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Complex building systems require skilled staff.  By Engg317 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75491910

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