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Building a better building process: Final report recommends changes for county, city departments

CHARLOTTE – Transparency and collaboration, streamlined online services, and improved customer service could go a long way toward improving the city’s and Mecklenburg County’s building development processes, according to a final report commissioned by the city and county.

Gartner Inc., a global information technology research firm, was hired last year for $325,000 to provide recommendations on how to improve building development processes after the county’s Land Use and Environmental Services Agency received complaints about its performance. Gartner recently turned over to the city and county its Development Planning, Permitting, and Inspection Process Review Final Report.

In the report, Gartner broke down its recommendations into seven “themes” that the city and county should address, and provided recommendations targeted at each theme.

The recommendations include:

  • construction-toolsUnify the structure of the city and county’s building development departments.
  • Pursue a better understanding of customers’ wants and needs, and bring together city and county customer service employees to tailor to different customer segments.
  • Focus on changing the work culture at city and county agencies so that employees understand roles, responsibilities and issues and can provide better assistance to customers.
  • Educate customers on and simplify building development processes, and hold city and county employees accountable for their performance.
  • Plan and manage technology to address gaps, redundancies and inefficiencies regarding software.
  • Improve consistency of code interpretation and application.
  • Implement better measurements of success that align with the needs of customers and drive employee productivity and timeliness.

 

Lack of collaboration

Gartner interviewed customers, such as homeowners, builders, architects, engineers and developers, as well as city and county staff members, to determine which building development processes are done well and which are not.

Customers said there was a lack of collaboration between the city and county, and that they are at times unaware of which services the county handles, which services the city handles, and which services are shared.

“Perception by customers is not good because we are seen as separate with different systems although we do use some of the same systems,” said one government employee, who was anonymously quoted by Gartner in its report.

The Land Use and Environmental Services Agency oversees the county’s code enforcement department, which handles building inspections, plan reviews and permitting processes to ensure projects abide by the state building code. The land development division within the city’s Engineering and PropertyManagement Department handles inspections and plan reviews to ensure they are compliant with the city’s development standards.

Dave Simpson, CEO of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, said the city’s and county’s efforts to to improve its building development processes are “greatly appreciated,” and that ensuring customers understand the processes is key.

“Construction is a very complicated industry, and it’s very helpful when the requirements by the city and the county are equally comprehensible,” he said.

Gartner suggested the city and county better organize and allocate its various tasks and services by restructuring its building development departments, and provided three ways that it could be done: through a merged jurisdiction model, memorandums of understanding or interlocal agreements, and complete city and county separation.

Although Gartner gives arguments for and against each option, the company recommended the city and county pursue option two: memorandums of understanding or interlocal agreements.

Part of that strategy would include the formation of a unified development services committee, which would replace the existing county’s Building Development Commission (BDC) and the city’s Development Services Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC). The BDC advises the county’s Code Enforcement department, and the DSTAC advises the city on implementing and governing regulations related to development.

Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, as well as Las Vegas and Clark County, Nevada, have both successfully implemented versions of this restructuring method.

 

Too many tech options

 

One of the problems cited in the report was the impact of using multiple software applications to complete tasks. Customers said it creates unnecessary confusion, and city and county employees said it creates a “drag on productivity,” a “lack of accountability” and that it negatively affects customer service.

“Despite (the) use of leading products and extensive functionality to support development services, the current systems utilized do not provide easy access to information or status updates, and do not ‘talk’ to each other,” Gartner stated in its report.

Gartner recommended forming a joint information technology committee that would make decisions for the city and the county. This group would lead the effort to develop an online portal strategy, another key component of Gartner’s technology recommendation.

A web portal is typically a Web page that can be used to access several online services. Gartner suggested the city and county consolidate its various online service websites into a single portal, as opposed to having multiple portals.

The company also suggested the city and county either consolidate or integrate software and applications that offer the same services in order to cut out overlapping and redundant functions. For example, the city uses Accela to record permits, plan reviews and inspections, and the county uses POSSE to record permits and inspections, but uses an electronic plan management website to record plan reviews.

Consolidating online services would result in the city and county both utilizing the same systems, and integrating online services would allow the city and county to each operate its own software and applications. Both options would simplify customers’ experiences by allowing them to access everything through one portal.

 

Better customer service

Although Gartner’s report indicates that restructuring online services would help improve customers’ experiences, it also suggests the city and county implement new customer service strategies.

The report suggests the city and county work towards a uniform customer-service vision. Specifically, Gartner suggested that the customer service model be tailored to different customer segments.

“A strong joint organizational customer service focus will help to ensure better alignment with customer expectations,” Gartner said in its report.

The company also recommended the city and county increase its staffing levels to meet the demand of a more active, post-recession development industry.

But Karla Knotts, co-owner of Charlotte-based Knotts Builders, said the city’s and county’s customer service problems are a result of a confusing system.

Knotts, who is a member of the city’s DSTAC, was a participant in four of the focus groups Gartner assembled to gather data for its report.

“They’re saying they’re grossly understaffed, but I don’t believe the report says that we have looked at the overall process to determine how to best use the people that we have available to us, because we don’t need more people,” she said.

Ultimately, Gartner recommends the city and county strive to “provide a collaborative, responsive, and customer-centric experience, and a portfolio of high-impact, innovative, and market-competitive services to safely and responsibly foster economic development and public well-being,” according to the report.

The Mecklenburg Times was unable to reach representatives of the city and county for comment on Gartner

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