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Convincing stakeholders that it’s time for a new permitting solution is no easy feat. Whether making the leap from a homegrown to vendor system for the first time, or from one vendor to another, it can be hard to justify the investment - especially to those concerned about the perceived costs.
Investing in a new permitting system is one of the biggest (and most impactful) decisions permitting departments can make, so unsurprisingly, it can feel like a full-time job. Naturally, you’ll ponder whether to maintain the status quo or finally invest in something new. Will it be worth it? How do homegrown and vendor solutions compare?
We sat down with Barb Mock, the Former Director of Planning and Development Services for Snohomish County in Washington, to discuss just that.
Barb is a permitting veteran with more than 40 years of experience in government. From the late 1970s through her retirement in 2021, she held roles as a permit technician, planner, senior planner, supervisor, and more. She set the department strategy for permitting systems during that time, and helped establish Snohomish County as a permitting pioneer through her advocacy for government modernization.
Read on for Barb’s top advice for governments looking to make a permitting system switch, and to learn more about her first-hand experience implementing technology and managing change.
Barb: Well, speaking from a time when there wasn’t such a thing as permitting software vendors, our only option was to build something in-house. Our initial efforts were to go from three by five cards in a file cabinet to a spreadsheet on our desktop computers—we had to make that happen on our own.
Yes, it was a big lift on our end, but the good thing was, we could build a basic solution for relatively cheap because the employees building the system were already on the payroll.
Another pro was we could configure the system to be exactly the way we wanted: it could be in our verbiage, and we could build it pretty fast. Once we had computers at our desks, everybody had access to our configured spreadsheets and Access Database.
On the other hand, however, the downsides were many. The system lacked integrations, we couldn’t easily add new features, and as time went on, the big software giants stopped supporting the platforms that systems like ours were built on. Not to mention the lack of support we had. If an issue came up, there was no other option but to solve it internally.
Barb: With vendor solutions, there’s always someone there to support you if something breaks. It might feel great to have power and control over what you are building, but if the person who built your homegrown system leaves, you are in a big bind. You've made this homegrown system your core business application—it's the only thing you have. If the employee that created it is gone, there's no one to help you if something breaks.
Further, the permitting software available today—so long as it’s configurable and easy to update—can be set up to sync with your existing systems and processes. You aren’t stuck with this huge database or tracking system you built yourself that can’t integrate with anything else.
Also important to understand that you're not going to get any new features with a homegrown system, and you're probably not going to be web-based, which is standard for most vendor solutions. You’ll be stuck with on-premise servers to maintain.
Not to mention, if you go the vendor route, you’ll benefit from the learnings of other jurisdictions that use that software to solve similar problems, so you can avoid any possible mistakes they made, and hear first-hand about the user experience.
Barb: People just assume that software is expensive. But you have to put a dollar value on what your current processes are right now to generate an accurate comparison. Most people never do that. They go, “Well, we don't know how much it costs to process a permit,” and then analyze what it costs to purchase the software.
To do a proper cost analysis, you need to put in the effort to fully understand your end-to-end permitting process and all of the costs associated with it. And I mean all costs. Look at your storage costs for electronic documents, how much staff time is wasted searching for plans, and even the nitty-gritty costs for printing and paper - they all add up.
Same goes for the cost of new permit software. You can't look at the sticker price and the hardware you need and then just walk away. Those costs are small compared to the costs for staff to implement and maintain the system.
Barb: It’s important for staff to have a say in things, to make sure that what you're building will actually meet their needs. Check with everybody to understand their worries and business requirements, even before you start your formal buying process. Make a big investment up front–it'll seem painful, but it will pay dividends in the end. Making sure you engage with the right stakeholders early on is one of the five most important aspects of successful change management.
Take the time to understand what your IT department needs to feel satisfied that the solution is workable. Another important stakeholder is human resources because you’re changing the way your staff do their job. It can be like night and day going from one solution to another. That’s why training and communication early on is so crucial - you want to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible.
Same goes for your customers. The reality is, they’re your most important stakeholder. Your solution really needs to work for the people that you're serving, and you need to understand what they want. You can save yourself a lot of time if you involve customers from the very beginning. Gather developers, builders, whoever else is a frequent user, and ask them what they want out of a new system. They’ll feel heard and excited that they’re shaping such an important community service—and when you launch, they’ll be your biggest advocates.
Barb: Look for a vendor with a proven track record in project management who's willing to help teach you about risk management. First and foremost, your vendor should be your partner.
You should also ask about support. If you have a question about something or need help with the system, will you be able to call someone and get an answer? Will you have a direct line or designated point of contact in the case the vendor gets bought up by another company? Having that clear and reliable communication channel is critical to success.
Better yet, go with a vendor that has a dedicated customer success person or team—someone whose job it is to care about you as the customer.
Also make sure that your chosen solution can easily be integrated with other systems, whether that’s ERP, GIS, electronic plan review, or payments. It shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive to connect your core business systems and transfer information back and forth. If you can’t do that, you’re going to spend a lot of time and money on custom integrations.
Finally, it’s worth considering how your vendor treats existing customers as well as new ones. Reach out for references to get an idea of how the vendor-customer relationship works, and whether or not you and your chosen vendor will be a fit.
#1) Talk to other governments about their experiences. Ask if there’s anything they’d do differently and what they wish they’d known from the beginning. One benefit now is that you have examples of other governments’ implementation successes and failures. Plus, you can reach out to current users to properly vet the vendor you’re considering.
#2) Document your existing business processes. It can help you identify inefficiencies in your current process so you can know in advance what processes need a complete overhaul, and which processes (if any) are fine the way they are.
#3) Choose your team wisely. You need a team of your best people from every business function to represent the interests of every user. For us, in our world, we had a planner, a building inspector, a structural plans examiner, a drainage person, a biologist, a fire and code enforcement officer, and probably more people I’m leaving out.
#4) Take your time. Remember, settling on a software solution is no quick decision. It requires a considerable upfront time investment, and a long-term commitment of not just time, but of staff resources, too.
Curious to learn more? Download our comprehensive Permit Software Buyers Guide to make selecting a permitting solution easy.