In 2005, Cape Coral, Fla., saw about 8,000 single-family home permits issued in the city - one of the largest in southwest Florida with a population of about 170,000. This swells to 220,000 when the retired "snowbirds" flock south to enjoy the warm winter weather. As baby boomers retire and move here, the community is expected to continue growing.
Single-family construction required a great amount of coordination among the builders, developers, homeowners and the city government's staff. Much of this coordination hinged on the site-plan approval process.
The process was so expensive and time-consuming; we knew there had to be a more efficient way. So we came together to develop a better, paperless system.
Old, Complex Processes
We previously used a manual, paper-based approval method that required developers and builders - of both homes and commercial properties - to submit as many as 18 copies of blueprints, plans, architectural documents and other supporting materials. These piles of documents had to be hand-delivered to Cape Coral City Hall.
This manual process was difficult, complicated and expensive. An applicant usually paid about $3 per sheet to print and copy large prints. With 18 copies required for the approval process, the costs could pile up to more than $1,000 per application.
Once the documents were in the door, the approval workflow began.
To move a site plan through, each reviewing agency needed to provide its seal of approval, usually completed with a rubber stamp. When dealing with a commercial project, which can have 20 pages of plans, each reviewing discipline - mechanical, electric, plumbing, etc. - would mark each page manually with its rubber stamp. Since the plans were so large, approvers would come to stamp the plans at a special table. This laborious process could take several hours to finish.
We knew there would be an immediate improvement in speed if an applicant didn't have to come to city hall to submit a site plan. Plus, if an applicant didn't have to submit more than a dozen copies of a plan, there would be substantial cost savings to both the applicant and the city.
Site-Plan Automation Is Born
The solution to our challenge came from an unexpected source - a software program from SIRE Technologies that was being used in the Cape Coral Clerk's Office.
Scott Craig, the business systems analyst in the clerk's office, had used SIRE's Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) for a few years to manage the city's documents and workflow processes, with tremendous results. Between the clerk's office and Cape Coral's Department of Community Development, the city has added more than 5 million documents to the system.
After observing SIRE's capabilities, we decided to look at the product's workflow portion and see what we could implement in our department. As we analyzed the product, we believed it could improve our process, so we created a workflow process to manage the stream of paperwork going to and from the city tax assessor's office. Craig put together a process that made it possible to electronically scan, submit and approve the paperwork.
We agreed that scanning the documents and sending them electronically was good. However, what if we could eliminate the scanning and have site plans submitted electronically by the customer? No one had ever done that, but SIRE representatives were optimistic that it could be accomplished. If we could map out the workflows and the forms, SIRE could program it for us.
We gathered people from different disciplines at city hall to brainstorm and bring their best practices to the table. Planning was important for this system to work; the team spent about two hours of planning for every hour of implementation.
Cathy McPeak, forms designer for the city, took the paper-based forms and created
an electronic counterpart. The Site Plan Form involves quite a bit of information. She made a template in Microsoft Word and bookmarked all the fields so it was easy to integrate into the SIRE work forms. We now have a much simpler way to obtain information.
Manny Ratliff, the city's workflow designer, mapped workflow processes and integrated them into the system.
The collaboration worked, and a new program was born. The SIRE Site Plan is now in operation.
Contractors and design professionals now work with the city more efficiently than before. We start the process by issuing a PIN, which grants them access to the SIRE program. They fill out online forms that check for errors, perform mathematical functions and help the applicant avoid mistakes when submitting. The applicant also uploads any additional paperwork, such as site drawings, plan sheets and other related documents. This triggers the application review workflow, which is forwarded automatically to the queue of the first reviewer. This reviewer checks the application for errors and confirms the documents have been uploaded.
Once the prints are submitted electronically, a plans examiner receives and reviews them on 32-inch screens. The plans are approved or disapproved electronically. Comments are compiled within the workflow and sent to the applicant. Depending on the outcome, the workflow either ends or loops until all reviewers have approved and "stamped" the plans with an image that looks just like their rubber stamp.
We also use the workflow for miscellaneous permits submitted in-person at city hall. A customer service representative accepts the application over the counter from applicants' scans and uploads the documents into a workflow, which takes the application through the new electronic approval process.
In the end the files are all stored in the EDMS. Cape Coral recycled 18.5 tons of paper in 2007, which illustrates how much space and cost savings can be created using electronic file management.
Moving the system to an electronic document format brought an added element of security to the city. With the electronic backup in place, the files are not at risk from a hurricane or other disaster. In addition, paper-based items can get lost.
Previously, issued permits and documents were stored in a series of giant, mechanical file cabinets. To retrieve a file, we entered a file number on a keypad, and the file cabinet rotated and found the file. However, if the person who pulled the file did not place the "out" card in the right place, the file could be difficult to find again. Citywide e-mails would be sent by staff members who were looking for a particular permit, when the file was simply sitting on someone's desk. With SIRE, several people can view the same file simultaneously. The file is electronic and cannot be lost.
By incorporating these strategies, our customers can save up to $1,000 per application. In addition, time and paper resources are saved.
We have realized a savings of 11,000 to 15,000 labor hours to date, and we expect to save from 20,000 to 30,000 hours as we continue to build the program.
We also created more space in our buildings by reorganizing the office and eliminating more than 50 percent of our file cabinets because we no longer need to retain and store paper files.
Our vision was to be a state leader in electronic document management, and we ended up setting an example for the rest of the United States. We are constantly helping other city and county governments that seek to emulate our system.
When our director of community development asked me what we can expect to get out of this project, I said we will have the best site-plan application system in the world. I think we are well on our way to making that happen.