Skype may be known as a free way for friends and family to have face-to-face chats over the Internet, but it’s also helping overcome logistical hurdles in Frederick County, Md.’s permitting process.

Construction permits that had a water and sewer component in the county often got delayed, as separate departments located 10 minutes away from each other are required to evaluate the applications. But Skype bridged that gap by allowing staff members and developers to connect online, allowing any issues or questions to be addressed in real time.

Instead of an applicant going to the Frederick County Department of Permits and Inspections to apply for the permit and then driving to the Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management to drop off the plumbing details, the entire case can now be handled from one location.

The equipment for the video conferencing system cost approximately $3,000 and launched in mid-December. It features two computers, four monitors and two high-definition video cameras and is available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. The county health department can also access and use the system when the permit requires its involvement.   

According to Kevin Demosky, director of Frederick County’s Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management, the change is in response to a desire from county commissioners to provide a more business-friendly environment when it came to permitting.

He said that initially, the plan was to have a dedicated staff member from the Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management working at the Department of Permits and Inspections. But since the frequency of walk-through permits was uncertain and the staff person would have to drive between offices, the focus turned to video conferencing as a potential solution.

In addition, since many historical documents are stored in huge filing cabinets, moving those cabinets or even devoting the time to scanning all of them wasn’t as easy and cost-effective as it might sound to some.

Skype provided an effective stop-gap measure for the county to get the work done and increase efficiency in the permitting process.

“I think some people may look at video conferencing as being old school, but it’s an inexpensive way for offices that may have remote locations that need to interact at a central hub, rather than moving people or building more office space,” Demosky said.

Initial Reaction

Since the system came online with the holiday season kicking in, county officials don’t yet have a definitive handle on just how much the service will be used. Sharon Goetz, manager of Permitting Services in Frederick County Department of Permits and Inspections, said that so far only one applicant has used it.

That user — Bill Raymond, vice president of Summit Construction — told the Frederick News-Post that in the past, people like him who simply had one sink to install got “lumped together” with other projects that may have had a large amount of plumbing work. But the new system enables county staff to take a look at those situations much more quickly.

Goetz expected use of the Skype system to increase once companies realize it is available and more projects get started later this year.

“We anticipate having a few of these permit applications a week when permit activity picks up,” Goetz said. “Even if it’s a small number, it will be worth it, because it will make a difference to those customers.”

Initially, however, staff members weren’t as gung-ho about using Skype for permitting issues. According to Goetz, employees were skeptical video conferencing would be a worthwhile effort. But once folks started training on the system, opinion on its effectiveness quickly changed.

“Once we actually used it in the test/practice sessions, we could see the benefit,” she admitted. “Not only is it more personable to talk to someone that you can see; it also puts a face to the name for both the permit applicant and the person reviewing the application. It definitely has a more customer-friendly feel than just talking on the phone.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.