Elizabeth Tanner, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Business Regulation, sees transparency and convenience in her state’s e-permitting system.

Apr 09 2019

Cloud Migration Takes the Pain Out of Permitting Processes

States, counties, and cities have put applications online to save time and increase transparency.

Instead of making separate trips to local and state government offices to apply for some building, electrical and other permits, Rhode Island homeowners, businesses and contractors can take care of these tasks all at once through an online service.

In 2016, Rhode Island launched a statewide, cloud-based e-permitting system that connects the state with its municipalities. It centralizes and streamlines the permitting process, resulting in faster approvals, improved customer service and cost savings for the government.

“Previously, it was entirely paper-based, and some permits required visits to both the local town hall and the state’s offices, so it was two stops. Now, it’s an entirely electronic process that can be done on your phone,” says Elizabeth Tanner, director of the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation.

State and local governments have spent the past decade expanding their e-government services — and that effort includes e-permitting systems, through which residents and businesses can go online to apply for, pay for and track the progress of their permit or license applications. Those e-permitting systems take advantage of opportunities offered by cloud computing and server technologies.

“More and more, people are expecting to have that easy online experience they have when they go to Amazon,” says Amy Hille Glasscock, senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. “It’s a lot more efficient and saves time.”

Government agencies work more productively with e-permitting by automating the back-end workflow and allowing agencies to manage the permit approval process electronically through the cloud, Glasscock adds.


Why Cloud Is the Key for E-Government 

Multiple state agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Regulatory Reform, the Department of Administration’s IT Division and the quasi-public Rhode Island Commerce Corp., collaborated on the e-permit project to streamline the permitting process and boost economic development, Tanner says.

Rhode Island standardized on cloud-based permitting software that is hosted on Microsoft Azure. The state pilot included 10 municipalities as well as the Office of the State Fire Marshal and the Building Code Commission.

Today, 28 of the state’s 39 municipalities have gone online with the new system, and another three will be up and running by the second quarter of 2019, Tanner says.

Besides fast processing times, the e-permitting system provides convenience and transparency. Residents, contractors and builders use the system to apply for building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, moving, demolition and solar permits.

“People can order permits from home or their work site anytime, 24/7, not just during office hours,” Tanner says. “It’s also incredibly transparent. They can check progress online and see that their application has moved from one person to the next, and not worry that it’s stuck on someone’s desk.”

For many jurisdictions, it’s the first time employees don’t have to input data manually. And the cloud has reduced annual maintenance costs for some cities and towns replacing aging permit systems.

Elizabeth Tanner, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Business Regulation
When you apply at the municipal level, you connect automatically to the state, and you can process your permits through both at the same time.”

Elizabeth Tanner Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Business Regulation

The state’s IT Division worked with each municipality to migrate to the new software because they have custom processes, fees and forms, says Sandy Furtado-Nardozza, the IT Division’s chief of staff.

Most municipalities previously standardized on one of two vendors’ permitting software. “We worked with both to develop data migration files that worked with the new vendor. This made the process simpler and less time- consuming,” Furtado-Nardozza says.

In most cases, permits need only a municipality’s or state’s sole approval. But some permits flow through both local and state government. If a municipality doesn’t have a building official or fire marshal, the state can approve the permit, for example.

“When you apply at the municipal level, you connect automatically to the state, and you can process your permits through both at the same time,” Tanner says. 

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how state CIOs should preserve digital records. 

Salt Lake City Cuts Down on Permitting Review Times 

In Utah, Salt Lake City’s online permitting system cut the time it takes to review building permits by nearly half, from 114 days in 2015 to 59 days in 2017.

Salt Lake City turned to e-permitting because the previous paper-based system was not customer friendly and was often bogged down by a lack of coordination, says Orion Goff, the city’s building services director. Departments and divisions, including planning, building, public utilities, transportation, engineering and the fire department, took turns reviewing each application, but these reviews were not done simultaneously.

The city’s e-permitting system, a mix of cloud and in-house software, has changed all that. The city deployed the e-permitting system nearly a decade ago, but adds new features and other improvements every year. Today, about 90 percent of permit applications are submitted and reviewed electronically. If applicants do submit paper applications, the city digitizes them by scanning them into the database, Goff says.

The city, which issues about 13,000 permits a year, actually uses three software solutions for permits: a cloud-based document management system; commercial permitting software that enables electronic reviews and communication; and interactive voice recognition software that allows applicants to schedule inspections and check the status of their applications or inspections.

In the past, applicants submitted several sets of paper-based building plans that were farmed out to individual departments for review. Now, they submit one plan electronically, and through the software, required departments review the plans simultaneously. “We have a shared database where we track and issue all of our permits,” Goff says. 

The city’s IT department also tied the permit software to the city’s financial system to accept online payments, producing more efficiencies, he adds.

MORE-FROM-STATETECH: Find out the cloud certification state and local government employees need. 

Agencies Should Develop and Test E-Permitting Systems 

Before adopting an e-permitting system, it’s critical for government agencies to document their full processes so the actual workflow can be designed and implemented in the software, Goff says.

Adams County in Colorado did just that. Before launching its E-Permit Center for building permits in January 2017, county officials spent a year developing and testing the system.

The county, which implemented a commercial permit application, first mapped out its business processes. The county then built the workflow for electronic permit review and added a public-facing portion for citizens, making sure it was user friendly.

The software runs on nine virtual servers in production and in test and development environments. The county has standardized on VMware virtualization software running on Cisco Systems and Dell servers. All the permit data is housed on a Microsoft SQL Server database, says Brian Dobbins, the county’s application development manager.


Total percentage of building permits submitted online during the first full year of the E-Permit Center in Adams County, Colo.

Source: Andrea Berg, Adams County Community and Economic Development Department

“We went slowly to make sure our back office worked. We didn’t want our customers to apply for permits online only to discover we had a glitch on our side,” says Andrea Berg, customer and process development manager for the county’s Community and Economic Development Department.

The first step in the process is application intake, where permit technicians make sure all necessary documents are submitted. Then a plans reviewer sends the package to all the various departments that have to review the application or perform inspections. Those reviewers get alerts via email and on the software for new tasks and deadlines. Applicants receive results via email.

“At any point, the applicant can log in and read comments and get a sense whether the application will be quickly approved or if they have to provide more information, answer questions or make changes to the proposal,” Berg says.

Since going electronic, the county reviews permits three times faster, down from 30 days to just 10 days. “The response is hugely positive,” she says.

Photography by Ken Richardson

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