Implementation of an Electronic Permitting System (a.k.a. Mission Impossible?)

Renee C. Jackson, M.Eng., P.E.
Engineer 3 - Bridge Program Manager
Metropolitan Nashville Public Works Department
Nashville, Tennessee
Member, APWA Construction Practices Subcommittee

In April 2002, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro) "kicked off" its Mainframe Replacement Project, which consisted of replacing the Mainframe with four major acquisitions: a Tax Accounting and Billing System, a Permitting System, a Violations System and an enhanced LIS/GIS system. These systems were to be tightly integrated and utilize a current and expandable technology. In particular the new permitting system was to meet all current and anticipated needs of Codes for Building, Electrical, Plumbing, Gas/Mechanical and other permits. The new permitting system should also meet needs of Water Services for Water Tap and Sewer Tap permits and needs of Public Works for Street Closure and Street Excavation Permits. The system should use Name Address Legal (NAL) data from common LIS, should include a Contractor System and should use GIS data.

This sounded great! Metro was finally burying the old dinosaur mainframe and in turn all the paperwork associated with each mainframe system. By getting rid of the old mainframe, Metro would also be doing our part in lessening the effect of global warming because of all the groves of trees that would be saved each year. Immediately following this groundbreaking Mainframe Replacement Project announcement, a Request for Proposal (RFP) Team was formed, consisting of members from each of the Metro departments that would be utilizing the Permitting System. The Permitting System Request for Proposal Team had regularly scheduled meetings to coordinate a final integrated solution. The RFP Team developed and evaluated the Permitting RFP, and scheduled and evaluated several vendor software products. The RFP process and vendor selection process took much longer than the original fifteen-months goal because the RFP Team wanted to make certain the RFP and the new system selected addressed all the needs of the new permitting system. Accela's KIVA DMS was chosen, and then came the hard part—which department would be first to "go live."

In April 2005, Metro Public Works received the dreaded phone call, "Good Morning, Metro Public Works. As you know, a vendor has been chosen for the Permitting System portion of the Mainframe Replacement Project. Since multiple Metro departments at different locations participate in the permitting process, we at Metro are interested in becoming more of a 'One Stop Shop' for the Permitting System. Your mission, Metro Public Works, is to take the lead and be the first department to 'go live' with the new permitting system, drop dead date of July 01, 2006. As always, all tapes, e-mails, and other possible means of correspondence/communication will self-destruct if the media or any Metro Councilmember is contacted. Good luck."

This didn't phase us. Public works agencies all across the nation are used to having to take the lead, take the initiative, be the first in and the last out, with little or no help. We're always expected to do the impossible mission—hence the subtitle "Mission Impossible." So, our first task was to assemble the Metro Public Works Impossible Missions Task Force (it worked on TV, and public works departments are also included as First Responders by FEMA and are set up to operate in accordance with ICS) whose main mission was to identify key team member roles and responsibilities and to develop and carry out an action/implementation plan. The MPWIMTF was made up of Public Works Permitting System Section staff, Metro ITS staff, and project managers and software developers from KIVA.

The first objective of the MPWIMTF was Public Works Permitting System Section staff buy-in. Change is not easy for most of us and because Public Works would be the "first to go live," staff buy-in was crucial. It was important to have team members from Public Works Permitting Section staff who actually perform the work on a daily basis. They know what works and what doesn't, what information needs to be collected and what doesn't, how to make the system work more efficiently, and how to better the processes.

The MPWIMTF held several closed-door sessions to critique the old system and analyze the new system. Several changes were made to the permit formatting, permit naming code, chronology between the different permit types, calculations for permit fees, trigger values for inspections, and other features the MPWIMTF felt the new system must be able to perform. Most of the recommendations made by the Permitting Section staff were implemented into the KIVA system software. This was the turning point for staff buy-in to the new system.

The second objective of the MPWIMTF action/implementation plan was to define and document the current workflow process of the Public Works Permitting Section with the Mainframe. Once the current process with the Mainframe was defined and documented, it was then compared to the functionality offered by the new system. KIVA included in the defining stage a "wish list" of what Public Works needed the new system to be able to perform and what additional functions Metro would be requiring of Public Works to perform through the new system. This wish list and additional Metro functions were also compared to the functionality offered by the new system.

A Metro building permit creates entries in a "workflow" Permit Tracking system of "needs" that requires all interested/affected Metro departments (Codes, Fire Marshall, Water Services, Planning, Public Works, Health, M.D.H.A., Historic Preservation, Urban Forester, ADA) to review each permit and sign off on their areas. Some "needs" are generated automatically. Permits are held until all needs are met. All permits create entries in an Inspection Tracking system to organize and track inspections during the construction process. This also ensures inspections are scheduled in the proper order, and Use and Occupancy letters are not issued until all inspections are complete.(1)

Now that the Public Works Permitting Section workflow processes were defined, the third objective of the MPWIMTF team was to distribute these workflow processes to the other Metro agencies that would be utilizing the Permitting System for review. The MPWIMTF team needed for the other Metro agencies to know and understand the Public Works workflow processes, what data would be collected by Public Works, how that data would be entered, what data formatting would be used, how the data would be stored, etc., because this information must be supported and accessed across the new Permitting System as each agency "goes live" in the future. In the past, Metro agencies did not know or understand each other's workflow processes.

The fourth objective of the MPWIMTF was to redefine the current Public Works Permitting Section workflow process based on comments received through Metro agencies review, and to run beta test processes within the new system. Each issue and/or comment was documented, evaluated, tested, and retested until resolved with sign-off from each member of the MPWIMTF. The beta system was then retested with documented resolution of issues and sign-off from MPWIMTF members. Parallel testing was then performed with existing Mainframe permitting system and new permitting system. Issues were documented, tested and retested until all critical issues were resolved with sign-off from MPWIMTF members. Throughout this process Public Works Permitting Section workflow processes were adjusted accordingly.

With the Permitting Section workflow process now finalized, and with all issues resolved from beta and parallel testing, the fifth and final objective before going live was contractor buy-in. There were several changes to the existing Permitting Section policies and procedures and these changes had to be communicated to the contractors who would be applying for permits and to the other affected Metro agencies. A series of workshops were held with contractors and affected Metro agencies explaining the new and revised policies and procedures. Contractors were also given the new permit fee/price schedule as well as a listing of help websites to assist them in accessing and using the new Permitting System.

Well, we went "live" on schedule. Did we have issues to resolve? Yes. Are there still issues to resolve? Yes. But since our MPWIMTF had an action/implementation plan in place and followed that plan (staff buy-in, evaluate, document, test and retest until resolve, contractor buy-in), the car now drives up to Public Works Permitting Section office, picks up the MPWIMTF members, and drives off into the sunset with another seemingly Impossible Mission now made possible.

The Electronic Permitting System has offered several benefits to Metro Nashville/Davidson County, the most important being:

  1. Reduction of data transfer cost between Metro departments and agencies since all Metro departments and agencies are using the same permitting system.

  2. The new Permitting System generates financial reports and tracks costs by permit types, which are both functions that the old Mainframe system could not perform.

  3. The new Permitting System has allowed Metro to track permits and inspections of all projects being done within the city limits. [May 01, 2005 thru April 30, 2006 - 81,281 permits issued through Mainframe. May 01, 2006 thru April 30, 2007 - 101,314 permits issued through KIVA(2)]

Renee C. Jackson can be reached at (615) 862-8758 or renee.jackson@nashville.gov.

References:

(1) "Permitting Overview for Metro Nashville, Davidson County," April 12, 2002.

(2) "KIVA Reporting System Permits Frequency Report by Specified Time Period," Report GPRP25.