3 questions to ask when buying electronic plan review solutions

Is your city's planning department considering electronic plan review? Find out the most important questions to ask to procure the solution that best fits for your organization

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With any community development boom, municipal building departments can become inundated with requests, and it doesn't take long for backlog to grow. Numerous "end-to-end solutions" that cover submission, tracking, review, archiving and analysis exist to help municipalities overcome the inefficiencies and costs of traditional paper plan review and speed up community development project approvals.

But what are the most important questions to ask to find out if the electronic plan review solution is the best fit for your organization?

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#1 Ask vendors how centralized electronic plan review systems handle document sharing and control department workflows, while providing visibility to customers and stakeholders.

Speeding up the plan review process with paperless automation improves planning department efficiency by eliminating time lost to managing multiple sets of project files throughout review and project approval stages. But an electronic permit review system should easily track through all plan review processes from submissions to approvals and provide transparency.

Automated workflows improve planning department efficiency by making sure the right documents go to the right staff. Electronic plan review solutions should track various stages of projects, giving insight to building department managers while making individual project reviews accessible to both planners and customers. Further, a tool that collects comments made by developers, architects, engineers, residents and other stakeholders (such as the fire department) and enters them into a single electronic document or drawing is beneficial to the plan review process.

Once plans are approved, how are project files stored and then retrieved for future site reviews and potential emergency response needs? In the National Fire Academy whitepaper Using Technology to Improve the Plan Review Process (2012) research respondents in Sandy Springs, Georgia, indicated that archiving documents is the “most important and beneficial attribute of electronic plan review.” The city spent $1 million between 2005 and 2010 scanning construction documents.

Aside from cost, retrieval of final site plans can be critical in emergency situations down the road. For example, in fire, rescue or hazmat incidents, first responder incident commanders can improve situational awareness by accessing site blueprints quickly and remotely.

#2 Ask vendors about training both internal to the agency, and external for customers.

Not only will staff require training with electronic plan review software, but users will seek training to learn more about electronic plan review. Is training of staff being adequately addressed in the selection of an electronic plan review vendor?

The city of Phoenix’s Planning and Development Department hosted customer electronic plan review training workshops in 2018 and reported they were a huge success with more than 50 customers on the waiting list for future workshops:


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The ability of building department staff to train electronic plan review users will improve use of electronic plan review tools and overall efficiency of the department. The cost benefit analysis of implementing electronic plan review should include training.

The Model Procurement Requirements for State and Local Government Acquisition of Hardware/Software for Codes Administration and Enforcement by the National Partnership to Streamline Government, a public-private sector partnership once supported by 15 national associations representing state and local governments and segments of the construction industry, indicates that a contract should include training provisions and costs for employees. Training would span multiple agencies from planning and engineering to traffic and fire departments.

Onsite training programs for new electronic plan review solutions could also involve external stakeholders. Future training could be handled through a vendor’s customer care services, depending on offerings.

#3 Ask vendors how implementation would ensure interoperability with current systems.

Interoperability with existing systems -- such as permit systems and hardware and software used in remote field inspections of structures -- has generally been seen as a barrier to adoption of electronic plan review on the local level.

Acquisition, training as well as operation and maintenance of electronic permit review systems all factor into the return on investment, and disconnected systems can lead to inefficiencies. In its tool kit, the National Partnership to Streamline Government indicates that electronic plans submittal improves the accuracy of data in permits and enhances the collection of revenues.

When selecting a vendor, be sure it has the flexibility to work with legacy systems.

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