Webinar Recap: How Digitization Can Support BC's Economic Recovery

April 28, 2021

Modernizing Building Permit Approvals: How Digitization Can Support BC'S Economic Recovery

In this joint webinar hosted and moderated by the Urban Development Institute - Pacific Region, permitting experts from Clariti and Orange County, California, along with planning experts from Pooni Group, discussed the current regulatory and process challenges facing British Columbia municipalities amid a development boom, and how modernizing the permitting process can help. Specifically, the panel discussed how a digital permitting platform, similar to Orange County’s entirely digital permitting system shown in the webinar, could help BC municipalities - and other governments across Canada - speed up and simplify the often siloed and complex permitting processes experienced throughout the Country. Amid growing residential construction activity and accompanying building permit demand, cities and municipalities across Canada are faced with mounting permit requests and systems that often aren’t able to keep up. In B.C. alone, the value of building permits increased 34% in 2021 over 2020, while other provinces, excluding Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, experienced a 10% month-over-month increase in the value of building permits from October to November 2020. This growth, coupled with the manual, paper-based permitting processes some cities and municipalities still rely on, is causing building permit backlogs and development delays in many jurisdictions across the country.

Read on to learn what our panel of experts had to say about the current state of development in B.C. and where to improve; and how municipalities can take advantage of available government funding to modernize, speed-up, and simplify their permitting processes. Plus, learn best-practices from one of the top permitting programs in North America - Orange County, California - and how they can be applied in B.C. and other parts of Canada. Or, if you want to watch the full webinar, you can view it on-demand here.

The Current State of Development & Permitting in B.C.

Beginning the webinar discussion, Roger Bassam, Clariti Business Development Executive and former North Vancouver, British Columbia, Municipal Councillor, explained that, despite the pandemic and slow turnaround times, building permits and residential construction in B.C. (and across Canada) is booming. On Vancouver Island, for example, total building permits issued in 2021 is expected to increase 5% over 2020; while in Kamloops, the City has issued record-breaking permit values for 4 years straight -- just two examples of the monumental growth in development seen across B.C.. 

In the province overall, in just one month, from October-November 2020, the value of residential permits rose by 27.8% -- significant growth that shows no signs of slowing down as the demand for residential housing continues to rise. This is good news for the provincial government as residential construction permits account for 9% of B.C. 's GDP; but as Roger explained, maybe not so good for municipalities hindered by overly complex and lengthy processes, and developers and individuals faced with long wait times and project delays. 

This massive growth isn’t unique to B.C. either, with Canada recording the highest value of building permits issued at a record setting $9.9 billion in January 2021. While development demand continues to grow, most planning and development departments can’t keep pace. Throughout much of Canada, and most critically in B.C., permit turnaround times are measured in months compared to days elsewhere in North America, and development processes ultimately lag far behind other jurisdictions when it comes to modernizing the permitting process. As was highlighted in the webinar, B.C. not only saw the greatest increase in building permit demand and value in 2020, but faces some of the biggest hurdles in keeping up due to overwhelmingly siloed processes. And without an efficient process, jurisdictions will continue to face backlogs and miss out on revenue opportunities. These delays effectively slow development and are a source of widespread frustration for all stakeholders. So what can governments do better? 

To start, B.C. municipalities (and municipalities in Canada in general) can look to leverage technology to speed up development and project approvals, and make it easier and more straightforward for the public to obtain a permit. Especially now that B.C. municipalities have access to provincial funding to support the implementation of a permitting solution, it’s an opportune time for local governments to take inspiration from successful permitting programs like Orange County, and adopt digital-first processes. 

You can read more about the $15 million of available provincial funding, and how to access it here (deadline to apply is May 7th, 2021).

An Example of Efficient Development Approvals: Orange County, California, Permitting Best-Practices to Apply in B.C.

Following discussion of the state of development in B.C., webinar panelists and Permitting Managers from the Orange County Public Works Department, Judy Kim, and Laree Alonso, began a quick overview of their digital permitting system, and explained that because of their e-services portal (Figure 1), customer dashboard (Figure 2), and completely digital workflows and processes, their development services continued uninterrupted through COVID-19. As Laree put it, the Orange County Public Works Department (OCPW) likes to use the catchphrase, “We’ve got you covered online, so you don’t have to come in and wait in line.” 

Figure 1 - OC e-Services Portal

e-services permitting portal

Using Clariti’s comprehensive government permitting system, Orange County manages 10 different business functions in one place, including: 

  • Permitting
  • Operations and maintenance
  • Planning
  • Water quality and NPDES inspections
  • Surveys
  • Agricultural registrations
  • Weight and measures registrations
  • Time keeping, billing, accounting, and reporting
  • Code enforcement 

Through the department’s easily accessible eServices portal, the public can: 

  • Apply for permits, planning applications, survey applications, and inspections
  • Submit a new business or location registration
  • Make service requests or file a complaint
  • Request code enforcement action 
  • Conduct records research through the County’s research map that displays community information and records in an interactive map (Figure 3)
  • Make online payments - just the same as you would do shopping online
Figure 2 - Customer Dashboard

Customer Permitting Dashboard

Figure 3 - Research Map

Research Map

With just one login to access an array of services, and a simple user interface, the entire process is straightforward and easily accessible for the public. As Judy explained, it’s similar to ordering a pizza online -- you select the type of permit or application you want, and are then guided through a step-by-step process to complete your application based on what you chose. Specifically, permit applications are organized into types and subtypes in the system, and accompanied by tailored questions/requirements to ensure applicants submit the right documents, and complete the right steps to get their application right the first time (Figure 4). 

Figure 4 - Detailed instructions and requirements for a permit application

Government Permit Application

Government Permit Application

For staff, workflows and processes are just as straightforward and simple. Staff can login to the system and view all current (and historical) department activities and metrics on their team’s dashboard - almost like a digital front counter - to keep on top of their tasks and performance. These dashboards are customizable, provide real-time data, and can be created by department administrators to keep track of whatever data is useful to operations. In O.C., as Judy and Laree explained, the dashboards are critical to everyday operations, and help teams track and meet goals, and better allocate resources. In the public property division, for example, before using dashboards, the team was only meeting 65% of their goals, whereas now, the team is accomplishing 90%. This is largely thanks to their ability to track all important data in one place. As Judy showed, each division tracks what’s most important to them, so for the permitting division, this means tracking activities such as permit submittals and resubmittals; pending revisions; new and open inquiries; permit and revision owners; permits pending issuance; and more (Figure 5). While for management, their dashboard is more general, and provides a holistic view of activities (Figure 6) and metrics so they can more easily spot successes and areas for improvement.

Figure 5 - Permitting Division Dashboard

Permitting Dashboard

Figure 6 - Management Dashboard

Dynamic Reporting & Dashboards

For inspectors and plan reviewers, workflows and processes are completely digital too, supported by key system functionality like electronic plan review and online inspections management. Leveraging e-plan review, staff, builders, and other stakeholders can open any documents submitted in a permit application and make comments electronically, so no paper plans or comments ever get lost or delayed. Similarly, inspectors benefit from the ability to input data from the field, and log it directly into the system, so no information is lost.

In speaking about the department’s entirely digital processes and workflows, Laree explained that “it’s been a life saver over this past year [2020], because there really was no interruption to our service.” You can learn more about Orange County’s successful permitting program, and watch a detailed walkthrough here.

So would a system like this be possible in Canada? 

Roger explained that yes - it would be! And although B.C., and other provinces, have numerous complex rules and policies that vary from place to place, a lot of the complexity is unnecessary, so the choice to go with a more straightforward efficient system could actually set new and improved standards and practices. Adding that the system is scalable, so it works for jurisdictions big and small. Gary Pooni, president of the Pooni Group, also agreed that municipalities in B.C. and elsewhere could adopt a solution like Orange County’s, and that each municipality could make it their own, stating “it’s obvious that every municipality here should take this on.” In reality, as Roger explained, every government does the same thing, but all governments do it a little differently. With Clariti, these differences aren’t an issue -- the solution can be configured to meet each government’s unique needs. Municipalities can configure a system that works best for them.

To learn more about Clariti’s permitting and licensing software, or more about how you can leverage available government funding to implement a permitting solution, read more details
here, or get in touch


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