Electronic Permitting: The next generation

Shawn M. O'Keefe
Engineer II
City of Minneapolis, Minnesota
Member, APWA Construction Practices Subcommittee

Background
The UPROW Committee was established in April 1998 as the result of an APWA task force report. This report noted the need to clarify some 30 issues surrounding the use of public rights-of-way and to provide for better communication between telecommunications companies, utility companies, and local governments.

Each year since 1998, the UPROW Committee has requested that the Construction Practices Subcommittee research a topic of concern or interest to the APWA community. These requests were initiated because of the report, "Recommendation to Establish a New Professional/Educational/Technical Committee for Utility and Public Right-of-Way Issues," prepared by the Utility and Right-of-Way Task Force, dated April 13, 1998.

In 2003, the UPROW Committee requested that the Construction Practices Subcommittee identify and evaluate different electronic permitting (e-Permitting) systems currently in use by various agencies across the nation.

What is e-Permitting?
Electronic Permitting is the process through which the approval of permit applications is done in a paperless electronic manner. E-Permitting systems automate and expedite the construction permit process. These systems date back to the early 1980s, but mainstream use is just beginning. They have been shown to streamline the internal permit review process, by allowing agencies to move away from bulky paper applications that are submitted in varying formats to standardized electronic applications that are reviewed and approved through an automated work flow.

The development of e-Permitting systems over the past ten years has progressed a long way but even more work remains to be tackled. Typical systems in use today are focused on automating mundane building permit applications such as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing construction. Few current systems allow for electronic plan submission of more detailed permit applications.

Three types of e-Permitting systems in use today are as follows:

  • Vendor supplied
  • In-house developed
  • A combination of in-house developed and vendor supplied
This report documents the process the subcommittee followed to gather information on e-Permitting, assess and evaluate the data, and document the results of our findings.

Data Collection
The subcommittee began their research into e-Permitting by sending out an e-mail to APWA's InfoNOW Infrastructure Protection and Right-of-Way Management Community to take advantage of the APWA website and to encourage participation from the right-of-way community. The purpose of this request was to obtain contact names and phone numbers from agencies that are currently using e-Permitting systems.

Next, an Internet search for e-Permitting examples was conducted. Numerous websites were visited and several articles were reviewed for applicability. One article that was very helpful was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development publication entitled Electronic Permitting Systems and How to Implement Them.

The subcommittee then developed a questionnaire to use as a mechanism for gaining specific information on different agencies' e-Permitting systems. Requests were made to 25 local governments and other agencies around the United States. The subcommittee received and evaluated 18 responses.

Analysis and Evaluation
Prior to soliciting information from the various agencies, the subcommittee members developed specific criteria to evaluate the information and data collected on various e-Permitting systems.

The systems were ranked on a 0 to 5 scale for each criterion, with a score of 0 indicating that the evaluated system does not have the desired capability. A score of 1 indicates that the system has the capability but is lacking, and a score of 5 indicates that the system has the capability and is among the best available.

The following is a listing of the criteria used:

  1. Is the system linked to a GIS system?

  2. Is the system completely automated, i.e., can permittees fill out, print, and submit all applications online?

  3. Is the review/approval process automated?

  4. Does the system have an online help? If so, how effective or easy to use is it?

  5. Is the information stored updated on a real-time basis or is it canned data?

  6. Is the system able to store permit history for each location? Can this information be stored as an image and/or text?

  7. Does the system allow for remote access, i.e., can inspectors pull up information in the field?

  8. Does the system allow for different types of access depending on job functions?

  9. Does the system provide secured access and information over the Internet?

  10. Does the system's screens resemble the standard Microsoft Office applications?

  11. Is the system integrated with other internal agency system, such that information will be entered once and only once?

  12. Is the system user friendly, i.e., does it facilitate the ease of use and allow users to quickly obtain inquiry information?
Findings
The subcommittee was unable to find an ideal e-Permitting system that met all twelve of the developed criteria believed to encompass a comprehensive e-Permitting system. However, many of the agencies contacted are well on their way.

Our evaluation indicates that the e-Permitting systems in use today cover a broad spectrum of technology. For some agencies, e-Permitting entails the use of online forms that must be printed out and submitted in hard copy. Other agencies, such as Los Angeles, California, have automated the process to such a degree that up to two-thirds of the permit submitters never have any direct contact with permit approval/issuance staff.

The cost expended on e-Permitting systems also covers a broad spectrum. For example, the State of Indiana has been able to implement e-Permitting with virtually no cost. Indiana's e-Permitting system was developed in-house using free software downloads from the Internet. On the other end of the technology spectrum, the cost of a fully automated system linked to other agency departments can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Shawn O'Keefe can be reached at (612) 673-2456 or at Shawn.OKeefe@ci.minneapolis.mn.us. Members of the Construction Practices Subcommittee who contributed to this article include Steven Goodman, Arizona Public Service Company; Mark Macy, P.E., City of Nashville, TN; John Nowak, P.E., City of Billings, MT; Ron Polvi, P.E., Northwest Natural Gas; Willard Rusk, P.E., City of Florence, KY; and Jim Snyder, P.E., City of Nashville, TN.

Subcommittee member Mark Macy will present an educational session at the 2003 Congress in San Diego entitled, "Electronic Permitting: The Next Generation." The session is on Tuesday, August 26, from 3-4:30 p.m.

References

  • Electronic Permitting Systems and How to Implement Them, prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research by the National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington, D.C. under Contract C-OPC-21204. April, 2002. http://www.huduser.org/publications/destech/electronic_permitting.html.

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Intranet Site, http://www.huduser.org/periodicals/rrr/rrr_12_2002/1202_4.html. Date Visited 2/18/03.

  • The Office of Surface Mining Intranet Site, http://www.tips.osmre.gov/elec_permit.htm. Date Visited 2/18/03.

  • The San Jose Business Journal Intranet Site, http://sanjose.bizjournals.com/sanjose/stories/1999/01/25/focus2.html. Date Visited 2/18/03.