April 7, 2006 By Blake Harris
For the Washington County, MD, a new wireless permitting and inspections system has dramatically changed how building inspections are carried out in the county. Prior to the launch of the Department of Permits & Inspections' new system, everything in the field was done on paper. This resulted in many inefficiencies in the way the department organized and carried out its business.
For instance, inspectors would frequently arrive at a site only to discover that to deal with unexpected issues, they needed additional information on such things as zoning and site history -- information that was only available back at the office. This meant a trip to back to the office and then a return to the site.
And there were inconsistencies. "With an inspection team of 11, we had inspectors who were doing the same inspection but differently, or who were looking for different types of things during their inspections," Smith explained.
Inspection schedules were not flexible. "When inspectors left here, they could only do the inspections that they left the office with," she added. "If they got called to a site to inspect a structure because they were in the area, they simply couldn't do it without set back information, plot plans and zoning information from the office."
In January 2004, the department began a process to work smarter, increase efficiency and provide greater service to its customers.
Right from the outset, this involved the inspectors themselves. Smith explained, "We sat down with them before looking at any applications and asked, what does your day consist of? What are the frustrations you are dealing with on a daily basis? What keeps you from performing the tasks that you need to perform? We got their input and then decided what services we wanted to offer. I think a lot of times when administration makes decisions, they don't include the people who are going to be directly effected."
The deployment of a wireless inspection and permitting system for the department was paid for entirely by the County Commissioners. The case made to them to "sell" them on the upgrade was more than simply saving money and improving the efficiency of department operations.
"In today's society, although money does play a part, its not the ultimate focus. Time is money. If we can save people time by being more efficient with our services, we are finding that our contractors do not have a problem with sometimes paying additional costs," said Smith.
She said that the County Commissioners saw how the community was growing and realized there were services that the department could expand upon. And they could change the image of the department from one of not caring to one that was far more flexible in dealing with customers.
The new wireless system certainly has accomplished this. Now, inspectors can be on a site in 24 hours. If a contractor has questions, the inspector can pull up the history of the property or any other needed information right there in the field. They can print out permits and notices right then and there. "As a result, we found that our inspectors were even a great influence and more help to our contractors and homeowners in addressing the concerns and questions right in the field," said Smith.
This was all part of the vision presented
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.