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5 Ways Community Development Departments Can Innovate

Updated: Jan 6, 2022


It's no surprise that the need to innovate has been brought to light in many local governments around the country. Prior to the pandemic caused by Covid-19, municipalities were already addressing the increasing volume of voices asking for public services to be modernized. The pandemic simply accelerated many of the initiatives already underway in many communities and was a catalyst in others.

Municipalities have largely answered the call by streamlining processes, improving web-based engagement with residents, and upgrading their technology resources to facilitate it all. Community Development Departments are among the most publicly visible within most municipalities so it makes sense that innovation often-times starts here.

Of course there are many opportunities for modernization but let's take a look at 5 key areas where Com Dev teams are tackling these challenges.

1. Department Interoperability

Before technology can be implemented, it's best to ensure teams are optimized first. I've seen too many solutions deployed prior to this step and it results in lack of buy-in, inconsistent/variant uses of implemented systems, branching of processes, poor communication, and a disjointed look from external participants.

It's true that many communities have developers and contractors who have learned their unique requirements over the years and can navigate the silo processes. However, for many others the land development process can feel like an endless maze of red tape and confusion.

Reconciling and documenting overall land development process requirements beginning from Concept Plan Reviews and Zoning Approvals to Site Development and Utilities to Construction Plan Review, Permitting, and Inspections, all the way to the Final Certificate of Occupancy and Bond releases can flush out nuances in the process that are delaying development, causing confusion, or making development in a community cost-prohibitive.

The reconciliation process can remove application data collection redundancies, it creates a cohesive team, and builds a unified public-facing service. It also helps establish team and role expectations that are measurable.

After working with over 300 municipalities, I have found that the best way to document these inter-departmental processes is to integrate the instructions directly into the tools the team will be using. Ask your Community Development software vendor if their product includes project management functionality that associates all of the required steps and record types (Planning/Zoning Apps, Plan Reviews, Fees, Permits, Bonds/Escrows, Inspections, CO's, etc.) into a pre-configurable list or workflow. This allows you to identify project requirements in advance that must be followed based on the scope of work and prevents staff from having to maintain separate process documentation that is rarely referenced. This also gives applicants visibility into the process from the start, creates more seamless communication, and provides all stakeholders insight into the disposition of the project at any point in time.

2. Public Self-Service

Public Self-Service is one of the most frequently listed requirements on Community Development software RFP's, and for good reason. In a world of contactless transactions, staff shortages, and an exponential increase in app-service usage, PSS has become almost mandatory for many municipalities. Just within the past several years, people have begun engaging in many ways online that were never considered before, whether it be shopping for a present, ordering groceries, or calling a cab. The appetite for online services has quickly migrated from an appreciation to a demand.

If you're considering purchasing new software, make sure it can facilitate at least the following:

  • Electronic Application Submission (Planning Applications and Permits)

  • Fee Assessment and Electronic Payments. Ensure that payments are integrated and can post directly to the applications so staff don't have to enter them manually later on.

  • Inspection Scheduling. Verify that you can setup parameters to limit the number of inspections by day, permit type, and inspection type.

  • Electronic Document Submission. Make sure applicants can upload plans and other supporting documents as part of the application process and that these are attached to the applications in the system.

  • Auto-Issuance of OTC permits. If a permit doesn't require staff review for approvals, make sure applicants can pay and print online in a single process.

  • Record History Lookups. Contractors should be able to see their application and inspection history. Homeowners should be able to look back and see permits applied before they owned the property.

Public Self-Service systems give developers and contractors new insight, relieves resources for both the applicant and the municipality, and removes mysticism surrounding the process, making it easier for them to do business with municipalities which can actually increase process buy-in, and encourages future development.

3. Electronic Plan Review

Electronic submission of plans allows for more accurate sets of approved plans by making resubmissions quicker and easier, encouraging markups that require revisions by mitigating much of the concern over delays in producing updated documents.

It can also reduce overflowing storage areas, helping municipalities reclaim that space, and reduces the amount of paper used in the development process.

Look for plan review software that allows multiple reviewers to comment simultaneously, overlaying their comments on the document. Most have built-in markup tools to comment directly on the plans, calibrate and measure distances, add callouts, highlight, etc. Some have stamps that can be associated with individual users for approval or other common results or indications.

Consider software that integrates with your Community Development software for seamless electronic plan submission, review, and result communication back to the applicant. Be sure to ask specifically how the interface works, what its limitations are, and ask to see it in action via a live demo. This can mean the difference between implementing two systems that work great independently but have a choppy end-to-end workflow or two systems that are actually synergistic.

Overall, Electronic Plan Review systems provide for a quicker feedback loop that can reduce the amount of time an application lives within the permitting lifecycle, moving projects forward sooner and increasing bandwidth for more development.

4. GIS

To many in the past, a GIS (Geographic Information System) was simply a map. It may have been a website, or a desktop application where a user could search for an address or parcel number and view information related to that location. There was likely other functionality implemented over time such as the ability to perform public notices by identifying a buffer around a parcel and having those included in a dataset to generate letters via a mail merge.

While those are all still very common uses, GIS software is increasingly being used by Community Development Departments to solve problems, answer questions, and tell stories.

Esri's ArcGIS Online service, for instance, includes apps such as StoryMaps which enables a user to create an online presentation using GIS data. For instance, new developments could be geolocated onto a map, then augmented with visuals such as images of site progress and other information like a description of the project. This gives the public a more personal connection to the location, history, and progress of a development. It can engage them in community development and foster a sense of pride and place.

Esri also offers a REST service which can allow other software to consume data from the GIS system or post/push data into the GIS database. This can be helpful in keeping your Community Development system up to date with the most current owner and parcel information and allow GIS to become the central hub for data served throughout your municipality. Some Com Dev software vendors offer customizable imports to tap-in to this data on-demand.

Another feature among more modern Com Dev Data Management Systems (CDDMS) is the ability to attach cases (permits, enforcements, etc.) to a non-parcel location, a drawn polygon, or existing GIS feature. One example might be a user issuing a permit for a telecom company for work that will extend multiple city blocks. Instead of requiring an address, a user could simply draw a line or a polygon over the work area on a map within the permitting system and attach the permit to that new feature. Alternatively, an existing feature such as a plotted point for a tree could be selected for issuing tree permits.

The future of CDDM systems consuming GIS data is to perform routine and necessary spatial location, proximity, and pattern analysis' to make further determinations and adjustments to required workflows such as additional permits, reviews, inspections, fees, etc. For instance, if work is performed within so many feet of a specific body of water, or within an overlay zoning district, the system may trigger a different routing or additional requirements for approval. In this case, GIS spatial analysis is baked directly into configured workflows, effectively turning your CDDMS into a more automated decision system.

Ask your vendor or prospective vendors how they consume GIS data, what the integrations include and what their future plans are for expanding that functionality. Be careful not to get caught asking generically for 'GIS Integration'. This term can have many different meanings and expectations. It's best to be specific in what you're looking for up front in order to help you make the most educated decision down the line. You may not end up with exactly what you had in mind but knowing that early on can help you weigh that against the other strengths and weaknesses of the software as a whole.

5. Workflow Automation

Modern CDDM systems allow you to configure visual workflows using a flowchart style interface to automate common routines within the software like:

  • Sending email notifications when a permit is about to expire

  • Notify department reviewers when reviews are due and not complete

  • Execute conditional tests to be analyzed before triggering such as checking whether an invoice amount due is greater than $0 before determining which branch to follow.

There are seemingly an endless number of workflow scenarios that can be dreamed up. A good, modern, flexible Community Development Data Management System should allow you to configure most of them.

The future of Workflow Automation systems for Community Development likely lies in automating GIS spatial analysis' as discussed above and gradual introduction of more sophisticated third-party machine learning tools that are made available to vendor developers. For now, look for software which allows these known and anticipated scenarios to be configured and don't be afraid to ask vendors what their future plans are for their workflow engine.



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