Implementation of Cloud-Based Permit System – City of Stockton Experience
Written By: John Schweigerdt, City of Stockton - CALBO Innovative Practices Committee
As government entities continue to try and provide more services with less resources, they may look toward technology improvements to increase efficiency and streamline services. One of the many government software solutions that may require updating is the permitting system used for development services permits such as building, planning, and engineering permits. While there are a variety of different systems available, there are generally two different types; cloud-based systems and in-house or “self-hosted” systems. This paper will outline the experience the City of Stockton had with implementing a cloud-based permitting system.
The City of Stockton went live with a cloud-based permit system in October of 2015. The go-live date was preceded by 6+ months of configuration of the system and staff training, not including the time for procurement. The configuration and training was extensive due to the amount of customization available for the system that was chosen, the customization component of the implementation will be discussed in more detail further down. The City utilized an outside consultant to assist with the configuration and implementation, it should be noted that implementation could be handled directly with the vendor chosen however the City chose a consultant for initial cost savings and on-going support.
Prior to the implementation of the cloud-based system, the City was using an antiquated self-hosted solution for building, planning, and engineering permits. The prior system is an enterprise systemthat served multiple city departments in addition to the Community Development Department including code enforcement and finance. That system is still being used by other city departments that did not transition to the cloud-based system.
The City has found that there are many benefits to both internal and external stakeholders with the cloud-based system. The city has seen increased efficiency for the counter operations, plan check, and inspections through better permit/project management and workflow tracking.
The primary benefit to a cloud-based permit system as opposed to in-house is the ability to access the system away from the office and provide real time status updates to customers and city management. All that is required to have real time access is a reliable internet connection. Having a cloud-based system affords staff the ability to work remotely while keeping their workflow and the permit status up to date in the system for office staff and customer inquiries. Additionally, inspection results can be recorded in real time eliminating the need for inspectors to record their results back in the office at the end of their day. The City of Stockton accomplishes this through the use of Surface Pros for all field inspectors.
Another major benefit to a cloud-based system is the availability of real time project data for the customer. The vendor that the City uses has both a staff portal and a citizen portal. The citizen portal has a user-friendly interface where the customer can check the status of their plan check, see the results in real time of their inspections, and review inspection/plan check notes. The customer has the ability to schedule inspections through the citizen portal as opposed to the typical elongated IVR phone-in inspection system that most cities use (the city still has IVR available as an option). Additionally, the customer can make electronic submittals for plan review and pay their plan review fees online. The citizen portal also provides the capability for online permitting for minor permits such as water heaters, reroofs, etc. The City is still building out this functionality. Many in-house systems have the capability for a “web storefront” that would allow customers to interact with the program but they typically offer limited functionality and are not what customers typically expect of an online experience.
Other benefits of a cloud-based system include continuously updated software versions and reliable archiving of documents. Continuously updated versions of the program sounds good but does have some drawbacks. The vendor that the city uses will automatically update the software version, typically overnight, without much if any warning. Sometimes these updates are minor to address performance issues but other times they are a complete overhaul on the user interface. Staff is typically not aware of these impending updates until they log into the system for the first time after the update is completed leading to confusion and frustration in some cases. The automatic updates are beneficial when there have been documented performance issues whereas updates to a self-hosted system may require purchasing the latest version. The cloud-based system also offers a reliable archiving option where documents that are uploaded to the system are stored and backed up in the cloud and could be easily accessed even if there were a hardware failure. While the City still maintains the prior archiving system for building, planning, and engineering permits, it is anticipated that this redundancy could be eliminated in the future.
While there are many benefits to a cloud-based permitting system there are also some drawbacks that the City has experienced. I can’t say if these drawbacks are specific to the program the City of Stockton chose, the City’s infrastructure, or would be experienced with some of the other vendors.
The main drawback to a cloud-based system that the city has experienced is the persistent performance issues. A cloud-based system is dependent on internet/network reliability. If there is not a strong and reliable network connection then the system will become unresponsive or crash. If there is a problem on the vendor’s side that will be promulgated downstream to all customers, and the correction of that issue is outside of the control of city IT resources. This has been a fairly consistent issue of losing access to the program at what seems like the most inopportune time where there is a full lobby of customers. When this happens we have to either turn customers away or allow them to drop off their submittals and follow up once the system is live again. Typically, these outages are resolved quickly but have carried on for several hours in the past. Another performance issue that the city has identified is a trend where the system slows down or gets bogged down during busy periods such as mid-morning or afternoon. When this happens the system is slow to respond resulting in customer backup at the permit counter. I am not qualified to identify the cause of these performance issues but the trends have been identified over the last 3.5 years on the system.
Another drawback could be the fiscal commitment to implement and maintain a cloud-based system. These systems are almost always a Software as a Service (SaaS) financial model meaning there is an annual licensing fee for each user and annual maintenance fees. Stand alone systems typically have an upfront cost with annual maintenance fees but don’t require annual license purchases.
Previously I touched on the ability to customize the system. While there are certainly benefits to the ability to customize many areas of the program, in my opinion this is more of a drawback. The program the City chose is actually too customizable resulting in a program that has evolved into essentially a program that is custom to the City of Stockton. I would prefer the program to allow some customization for local requirements and processes but would keep the “bones” of the program the same so that it would function similarly for every city that uses it. The behavior of the program can be customized through the use of scripting. This is good for some of the automation we have implemented but is a huge maintenance burden. The program was marketed that after implementation city staff would be able to administer it, we have found that not to be the case and have decided to maintain a contract with our consultant in perpetuity. Another drawback to the customization is that it makes generating reports out of the system very difficult, if you miss any of the customized parameters the report will not pick up all of the data and will not be reliable.