Technology as a Catalyst for Process Improvement
This article was authored by John Covey and originally published in the Alliance for Innovation’s Solutions Journal.
About John Covey
Having worked in the technology field for the last 36 years, John currently serves as the Chief Information Officer in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. As a civic technologist, he supports ViewPoint in continuously improving ViewPoint Cloud, bringing modern permitting services to more forward-thinking local governments like the Town of Shrewsbury.
At my core, I am a technologist. Just as a scientist or mathematician has a natural calling to their respective fields, we technologists have an innate ability to absorb, understand and disseminate technological information. In the world of municipal technology, we apply what we know to help improve the human condition.
In Shrewsbury, Mass., we are particularly well positioned to implement technological innovations, due to a sound investment in infrastructure and forward-thinking approach to the improvement process. Part of that success is grounded in a holistic approach to IT—or in other words, the mindset that technology is not just about what you have, but about what you do with it. This simple value statement is a constant reminder that the world’s best technology is useless unless it works in tandem with smart people and smart processes.
Shrewsbury is also lucky enough to have long ago invested in our own power supply and distribution network. This infrastructure allows residents and business owners to purchase publicly-owned electricity, cable, internet, and phone services at a rate well below the commercial price. In addition, our municipal buildings have access to fiber-optic connectivity, making us poised to implement new technologies as they surface in the market.
Our resources and business-friendly environment have allowed us to apply a business analysis approach to technological improvements. The result is a focus on cost-effective innovation—how can we provide the best possible services at the lowest possible price?
Municipal Business Systems
Every business system can be boiled down to the following equation:
In order to consider a business system a success, your results need to be: 1) repeatable, 2) sustainable, and 3) maintainable. The results you get should happen every time you use the system, and those results need to be sustainable appropriate to the workload. Lastly, you need to be able to maintain those results over the long haul.
The 9-1-1 emergency call system is an example of one of the best municipal business systems ever implemented. With three taps of a finger any caller is able to achieve the same result (9-1-1 What’s your emergency?) anywhere in the country. This system has been adjusted appropriately to sustain the volume of incoming calls, and has been successfully maintained for decades.
An ePermitting Case Study
In Shrewsbury, we were looking for the efficacy demonstrated in the 9-1-1 system, but with our sights set on permitting. Responsible for monitoring health and building regulations among many other things, permitting represents mission critical operations for local government. As our inspectors like to say, ‘we prevent the fires before they ever happen.’ Yet, as important as these processes may be, they remain a daunting, complex task for most governments.
Having already implemented online permitting in 2011 with mixed results, we knew the first step was to overhaul our internal process before updating the technology.
The lessons learned from our initial foray into online permitting taught us a great deal. We had used the software as a band-aid, failing to address the weaknesses of our underlying processes.
We had essentially taken outdated paper forms and manual workflows and tried to squeeze them into a digital framework. Internally our process improvement was marginal. Yes, we were able to start accepting online submissions. However, the underlying convoluted process still made the application and review process both long and cumbersome.
A Business Analysis Approach
Armed with this knowledge, we took a new approach to implementing permitting software the second time around. The process began by fostering collective buy-in across the board, and diving head first into process improvement.
In discussing the project, we came to two guiding principles:
- We can’t change the regulations. Laws and regulations are there to ensure safety. No improvement measures could be allowed to undermine their scope.
- We serve the public. While we would seek to streamline our internal processes, our main focus had to be to eliminate unnecessary burdens on the public applicants.
With these principles in mind, we enlisted the help of a graduate student to take a deep dive into mapping the complex workflows of each permitting type.
By critically looking at our workflows and forms, we quickly came to several realizations. Firstly, our ‘one-size fits’ all and ‘we process applications in the order they’re received’ mentalities were not responsive to the inherent diversity of different permit types. We were slowing down processing times dramatically by treating all permit applications the same way.
Secondly, we were severely limited by the use of paper forms—or in our case, the digitization of our old, outdated paper forms. Many forms required repetitive information, and could not be changed based on application information. The key to redesigning the system was to redesign the forms.
A Repeatable, Sustainable, Maintainable Solution
Having mapped the processes and gained an understanding of our desired improvements, we now needed the tools to make that a reality. After viewing a variety of vendors, we selected ViewPoint Cloud, because the flexibility of the software and company’s staff reflected our core business system values:
- Repeatable: We could build and replicate custom forms and workflows that would give us the same results every time we executed an action.
- Sustainable: The software can handle the 4,000-5,000 permits we process every year. People without an IT background took to it immediately, meaning staff across departments could successfully use the platform.
- Maintainable: We could sustain the software costs and maintenance with our available budget and IT resources. Additionally, as a SaaS solution, the software is constantly being upgraded to evolve with growing needs.
We then used ViewPoint Cloud as the vehicle to put our ideas into action. The ability to create conditional rules and fields allowed us to create ‘TurboTax-like’ forms for applicants, reducing confusion, eliminating and consolidating form fields, and reducing the number of forms overall.
This new approach to forms, in turn, helped us redesign our workflows to more accurately reflect the necessary approvals for each permit type and speed up review time. Applications are no longer ‘first in, first out’, but instead put on the workflow ‘track’ most appropriate to their type and complexity.
Through this process, our team was able to consolidate 12-16 different permitting documents into 3 online forms. The streamlined forms and workflows have meant that permits that were taking weeks or months to process are now taking days or even minutes.
After going live in September 2017, we’ve already started to see these positive results ripple out into the community. On the very first day our new system was live, a local contractor had been able to receive a permit within 5 minutes of applying. He called the office to say how incredible the experience was and to vocalize support for the new software. We are seeing that reflected across the board with public users, particularly among those who process permits for business needs.
A Process of Continuous Improvement
Even with the major strides we’ve taken, Shrewsbury remains committed to constant progress. The flexibility of the software and our streamlined processes now allow us to take critical feedback and easily integrate improvements into the system.
Being a repeatable system also makes it scalable, and we’re looking to expand our use of ViewPoint Cloud to other departments in the coming months. Ideally, this one platform will provide a universal access point for constituents to do business with all Town departments.
Our sense of civic duty and access to resources also compels us to stand up as an example for surrounding communities. As part of a 9-Town Health Collective, we are currently making plans to apply for grant funding to implement this modern permitting system across the collective. This collaborative level of innovation, transparency, communication, and business intelligence is the way of the future for local governments, and we hope to lead by example.
One of the defining things about living in Massachusetts is the fact that we are not a state. We are a commonwealth. Our view of public service is that the commonwealth is for the common wealth; the good of all. Shrewsbury prides itself on not only helping our residents, but assisting all our neighboring towns. Our hope is to provide a blueprint that other communities can follow.