Updated: Jan 7
Covid has caused many communities to change the way they do business. Your municipality has likely even implemented some of these items, but in case they haven't, here is a quick list of ways departments across the country have adapted.
1. Self-Service Kiosks
Self-service kiosks located at the front counter or in the lobby of a Community Development department reduces the amount of time the public is engaged face-to-face with staff. Kiosks can allow residents and contractors to research property history and perform common tasks such as applying for permits, making payments, scheduling inspections, etc.
While this approach cuts down on F2F time, it does require workstations to be routinely sanitized.
Self-service kiosks began to pop-up prior to Covid but were implemented more recently in some communities as one extra step toward keeping staff and the public safe. In communities where budgets are a little tighter, glass separators with external-facing monitors have become commonplace in order for department representatives to quickly and easily share information with customers at the counter. This can be a cheap alternative to full kiosks without the self-service benefit.
Kiosks don't have to be expensive. If your current software vendor already offers online access to your data you can simply set out a laptop with a security cable attached to it for a few hundred dollars and use guided-access software to keep the machine on the desired browser and site.
2. Video Inspections
Not all inspections can be performed remotely but some municipalities have allowed certain types of inspections to be. This is done using video services such as FaceTime, Skype, or even Zoom over a mobile phone or tablet. Remote inspections are still a bit rare across the board but we have seen these performed for low-risk follow-up inspections or routine inspections such as rental housing, most commonly.
Another method being deployed is utilizing online inspection request systems for contractors, landlords, and homeowners to 'self-inspect' and upload a picture along with the request. The inspector reviews the image, and if satisfactory the inspection is approved in the system, otherwise an onsite follow-up is scheduled.
Lastly, we are seeing communities utilize aerial drones to perform certain types of exterior inspections, especially for roofing and large developments where landscaping and other features need to be quickly verified.
3. Electronic Payments
Most people are surprised to find out that many municipalities still don't accept credit card or electronic check payments. The pandemic forced many holdouts to move in that direction, however, the cost of processing fees are still high enough to prevent some from making the switch.
Moving to credit card payments reduces the passing of physical payments such as cash and checks across a counter and encourages payees to make the payments from home rather than making the trip into the municipal office.
IVR (Integrated Voice Response) systems also allow for electronic payments by phone and many receipting software applications have an integration in order to accept these types of transactions once they are processed by the IVR system.
If you haven't moved in this direction, it is worth contacting some processors to see how they recommend offsetting processing fees. Some municipalities have implemented a small technology fee on every permit, for instance, to cover the costs of both processing fees as well as hardware and software resources during technology upgrades.
4. Electronic Plan Review
Electronic plan reviews reduce paper which not only has environmental benefits but also reduces physical exchanges between applicants and departments. This can reduce or eliminate the need for F2F contact.
Municipalities are using everything from Adobe Acrobat to full-feature plan review applications in order to review plans. Comments/markups are either added directly onto the plans or are included as an attached letter. Checklists of common comments make this process easier by templating comment responses. Look for checklist functionality in your permitting system or your electronic plan review software. If neither exists, you can simply keep a list in Excel to search, then copy/paste until you are able to upgrade to a system with this functionality supported.
5. Online Applications
The most critical tool for many municipalities during Covid has been the implementation of online applications and inspection requests. Prior to 2020, many contractors still visited offices in-person to drop off their applications and plans.
Many municipalities were already accepting online applications for permits, plan reviews, planning applications, etc., prior to 2020, however many of them were not requiring it. The common concern of many organizations was that contractor adaptation was going to stand in the way of a successful implementation and adoption. I have spoken with several of my clients since then who were initially reluctant to allow online permitting just a couple years ago and the message was the same from all of them -- they don't know how they ever managed without it.
An online application system that is intuitive can actually save contractors more time in the short and long run, allowing them to stay on the job site and out of the municipal offices.
We recommend investing a few minutes up-front with each contractor who shows hesitancy by walking them through your online system the first time, helping them setup an account, and maybe even submitting their first app and/or scheduling their first inspection. Once they get comfortable, most contractors don't want to go back to paper applications. We have even seen many request neighboring communities to switch as well.
6. Remote Meetings
Perhaps the most obvious and common of all of the changes we have seen is the adoption of online meetings. Whether it be a Planning Commission, Committe of the Whole, ZBA, or other meeting, many were performed via Zoom or another group video service the past several years.
Where we saw this technology adopted within Com Dev departments specifically was the use of it for Pre-Application and other development-related meetings with applicants. The hidden benefit being that communities lacking a good meeting space with the right technology setup now could leverage the video platform to share their screens and have quick access to all project-related information.
Some communities even pull up the project within their CDDMS and modify the template requirements such as which reviews, bonds/escrows, plans, etc., are required based on the specific scope of work of the job being discussed. This leaves the applicant with a clear understanding of their project-specific requirements and sets the course for a successful project.
Contact Munivate for more information on any of the ideas or solutions mentioned here.