While many communities are looking to modernize processes, one Ohio city is lucky enough to have someone who’s done it twice before. Leading the charge toward a modern, user-friendly, cloud-based process in the City of Hilliard is Assistant City Manager Dan Ralley, who also served in a similar role in Upper Arlington, OH.
The city and region is growing and developing on a massive scale, and therefore the processing of a growing number of building permits is a big administrative challenge. Ralley, with a background in technology and previous experience deploying digital permitting software in Upper Arlington, is using Hilliard’s growth as an opportunity to introduce new efficiencies.
With an increase in building permits and inspections, as well as the pain points of using an antiquated permitting system during the early days of COVID, staff members were struggling to manually enter information into a legacy system and figure out a way to accept electronic payments. Rather than waiting out the clock, Ralley confronted obstacles like these proactively.
Ralley looked to OpenGov to turn a prior weakness into its greatest strength. After adopting Permitting & Licensing, a modern permitting and licensing platform, the City was able to eliminate unnecessary manual work and free up staff time.
“Part of what OpenGov does for us, and how we’re using it today: It essentially automates that whole step of staff manually entering permit information. The laborious work – and, frankly, the work that no one really wanted to do – has largely been eliminated through this automation,” Ralley said.
Permitting & Licensing
Over 90% of payments now made digitally
Cross-departmental collaboration and buy-in
Some permits that would previously take 2-4 weeks to approve are now approved instantly
A Tale Of Two Cities
The City of Upper Arlington, the first community where Ralley helped implement a new permitting system, is an “inner ring” suburb that’s already gone through development and is now in a redevelopment phase. However, the implementation of the new permitting system in Upper Arlington served as proof of concept for the benefits of digital permitting and licensing and was a model for Hilliard to follow.
For Ralley, the first go-around was also a learning experience. There were a lot of unknowns the first time, he said. When it came time to do it again, he was able to rely on that previous experience and know in advance what a positive impact it was going to have on the organization.
“I knew what was going to happen and the impact it was going to have,” he said. “These permitting rollouts have been the most impactful application of technology that I have seen in my career in local government.”
In Hilliard, development is a top priority. While a boon for the community, it can also lead to staff burnout if not done efficiently. Prior to OpenGov, the City faced the challenges intrinsic to an outdated system: Plans and permits were scattered in shared folders; staff had to manually key in applications and information, routinely performing “contortions worthy of Cirque Du Soleil” to accept digital plans or payments. Worse still, the public had no visibility or access to what was going on, which led to no end of angry phone calls and office visits.
Hilliard was one of the many towns and cities facing challenges with in-person, in-line, and on-paper workflows. During the submission process, it was common to see incomplete submissions and missing documents. It was largely a stop-and-start workflow with limited transparency. It depended on a key person, which meant a large risk of data loss if a staff member moves on. The approval and payment processes presented their own hurdles: Delayed payments, long queues of work, and limited data for reporting. Consequently, in Hilliard, and in many other communities across the country, the time-to-permit was highly variable, taking up to 4+ weeks.
Staff Burned Out
This creates frustration for residents, of course, but it also takes a toll on staff. The front desk, Ralley said, is one of the most difficult and, as a result, one of the positions that’s most prone to turnover. Customer interactions often occur either in-person or over the phone, which takes valuable staff time, and those customers are often frustrated about not knowing the status of their paperwork.
Outdated Processes Exposed
To make matters worse, the Covid pandemic exposed yet another shortcoming of a paper-based system: the staff had no way of accepting online digital payments, and with stay-home orders in full effect, residents had to send in paper checks or read their credit card numbers over the phone. To an already-overworked staff, the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Transitioning to a fully digital and automatable process has changed all that. The most dramatic difference in both Upper Arlington and Hilliard, according to Ralley, is the drop in foot traffic in the respective permitting offices.
“The number of people coming to our front counter dropped off almost immediately,” Ralley said. “It’s just easier for them to do it from their office or even their couch if they want to. We’re seeing well-in-excess of 90% of our payments coming in through credit cards and other digital forms. We get probably less than a dozen people a day looking for assistance at the front counter.”
Ease of Adoption
Ralley said the City’s staff sees the new process as a “pleasant surprise.” During the rollout process, he made the decision to debut the new system gradually, giving staff advance notice and plenty of time to adjust to the change. The benefits of this strategy were two-fold: It lessened the burden on staff, and it allowed his team to work out any kinks that popped up.
“The [OpenGov] system is really easy to roll out. The other piece of that gradual rollout was the willingness to say ‘it may not be 100% perfect the day that we go live, but it’s so easy to change. We’re not going to need a programmer. We can do these things ourselves.’ We were willing to go live and tweak things as needed.”
Ralley gave a specific example of how his team’s process has changed: “instant permits”. Instant permits mean that if all of the information is filled out correctly on an application and payment is made – and with the controls built into digital forms, this is easy –the permit can be issued instantly without any further staff review. With things like a roof or a tent permit, there is often no further review that is necessary until it is time for an inspection, and being able to instantly issue these permits to customers when they enter the application helps to make the process easier and ensures a higher rate of compliance with the permitting requirement for this type of work. With the legacy system, even applications that didn’t require an inspection or steps beyond payment were lengthy.
The ROI of Digital Processes
As more and more cities and towns look to adopt digital software, be it for permitting, budgeting, procurement, or finance, cost is always a primary consideration. To Ralley, and to the City of Hilliard, the benefits far outweigh those costs, whether it’s for a large City like Gary, Indiana or a rural community like Bingham County, Idaho or Tuolumne County, California.
“I know that cost can sometimes be a barrier for communities, but my experience has been that you’re going to find at least a half FTE, full-time equivalent, of staff time opened up once you fully automate some of these things with a modern permitting system, and that alone might justify the cost that you incur,” said Ralley. “Anything you can do to automate the approval process, automate the review process, really is lending itself to efficiencies that can justify the cost of the software.”
In addition to cost, other considerations for city leaders are 1) difficulty of software adoption and 2) resistance to change.
“I’ve had the benefit now, particularly with permitting, of starting from a legacy system that, frankly, nobody was sad to say goodbye to. You might still have people who are trying to hold on to a piece of their paper process or that excel spreadsheet that they use to track different things, but nobody has fought the changing of the software,” Ralley said.
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