City goes all-in on electronic permit applications

Vancouver official says digital project review processs increases convenience, saves time and money

Vancouver City Hall

Admittedly there’s a bit of a learning curve to Vancouver’s rapidly digitizing project review process, but officials say adopting it will save businesses and the City from wasting a valuable resource: time.

The process, which was actually launched about 18 months ago, allows businesses to submit digital copies of plans online, rather than physically bringing them to City offices. And on the City side, the electronic review system allows officials from several departments to look at applications simultaneously, rather than waiting for each individual to finish reading a hard copy of the paperwork.

But while participation by business in the months after launch were optional, the City is now getting more serious about making companies switch over, said Chad Eiken, the City of Vancouver’s director of economic development.

“Some have adopted it, but we haven’t seen the adoption rates we’d like,” Eiken said. “So we decided to force the issue.”

As of July 1 the City started requiring all pre-applications to be submitted electronically. And it plans to require all applications – land use, building permits, engineering permits and the like – to be submitted electronically by the end of the year, Eiken said.

“It really increases convenience, cuts down on costs and speeds up the review process,” Eiken said, “but it does take a little practice using the system. It takes several tries before people get what plan to sign up for [and] where to go, but once people sign up and get used to it it’s very intuitive.”

The City first started working with Avolve, a software company out of Scottsdale, Arizona, to install its ProjectDox software in 2011 at a cost of about $325,000. It took a few years to tweak the software and get it up and running properly, which is why it wasn’t released until very early in 2016, Eiken said.

“There’s been mixed reactions to it,” Eiken said. “Some find it a little clunky. There are some issues we brought up to the software provider and they’re fixing those (such as slow loading times for reviewers).”

In the next month or two, the City will be working with Avolve on a $160,000 upgrade that will fix the issues and streamline the system even further. After the upgrade is complete, the City will roll out more timelines for when businesses will be required to start using specific functions, Eiken said.

“By forcing this, and cutting the cord on paper plans, we think people will come to love electronic plan review,” Eiken said, adding that the City is providing online training and business outreach to help with the process.

It’s hard to tell how much the system will save the City overall in time and expenses, because it’s complex to measure, but it is likely to make a significant difference, Eiken said.

“We know it will save a lot on plan storage – we actually have a room stacked full of plans that we’re in the process of scanning,” he said. “It will save us that space. It will also save the space that paperwork takes up on people’s desks, in hallways and in our permit center.”

It will also stop the problem of paper plans that occasionally go missing or get lost in the shuffle, he said.

“Businesses can see what’s happening throughout the entire process as well,” Eiken said. “They can see who completed reviews and what’s still waiting.”

The technology is fairly new, and Clark County and surrounding areas in Southwest Washington aren’t using anything similar yet, but Eiken said if it gains popularity more towns and counties will probably start looking into it.

“We’re really excited about it,” he concluded.

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