Governments Go Paperless

Electronic plan review is revolutionizing government processes

Some changes in the construction industry are sudden, and their impact is immediate and highly visible. Other changes are small and incremental, and while they don’t make nearly as big a splash, they can build up over time and lead to industry-wide change. Regulatory agencies’ switch from paper-based to PDF-based plan review is one of those slow, incremental changes that has been building over time, but the measurable benefits that it’s bringing with it are nothing short of revolutionary.

Electronic plan review, also known as “ePlan” or “EPR,” is rapidly becoming a standard for government construction plan reviews and approvals. EPR processes now leverage standardized, PDF plans that are submitted electronically for review, and allow representatives from various regulatory agencies including inspectors, code specialists and state officials to use a collaborative digital platform to work together on their reviews even if they’re in different locations.

The EPR process greatly reduces the inefficiencies, errors, confusion and issues that plagued the previous slow, manual, paper-based process. Dozens of municipalities as diverse as Seminole County, FL , Kauai County, HI, and the cities of Santa Monica, Phoenix, Anchorage, Detroit, and Austin already have electronic plan review processes in place.

In a blog post written by Tina York, she lists five key value factors driving the adoption of electronic plan review:

  • Save costs incurred for printing, scanning and archiving paper plans
  • Increases speed and ease of submission for residents, developers and design professionals
  • No community investment into software, licensing fees or hardware
  • Increases collection of revenues owed to the jurisdiction
  • Provides quicker turnaround times by reducing the number of submissions and shortening cycle times

Gaining efficiencies and building relationships

Already facing the stigma of being slow to innovate, government also bears the burden of being seen as self-serving when it comes to working with contractors. “I can’t tell you how many times government just treats [contractors] as if they’re this disposable commodity. They’re our customers,” explains Snohomish County, Washington Planning and Development Services (PDS) Director, Barb Mock. “It’s not just about [improving reviews for] our staff because that’s just one half of the equation.”

The county chose to use PDF-based Bluebeam Revu as their digital review solution after hearing from their customers as well as other regulators that Revu was a key component to the success of their EPR process. This helped to standardize the consistency of the electronic documents into a format that was already widely used by her client base.

“Should our residents have to go to 80 different websites, should our residents have 80 different ways to do this? And so that standardization benefits us, but it also has to work for the customer,” concludes Mock. Mock’s approach has led to Snohomish County’s EPR process to now be completely paperless. After adopting Revu, 70% of the staff felt comfortable with the EPR process after having taken just one basic training module.

Quicker turnaround and ease of submission

Using an EPR process can also cut down on the miscommunication and turnaround times for municipalities that have experienced these headaches through previously paper-based and manual processes. The City of Westminster, Colorado, a Denver-area suburb has seen this scenario unfold during their previous processes.

Plans would be delivered on paper, by hand to reviewers who each did separate independent reviews before passing on documents to the next reviewer. From the loss of documents, reviewers being away from their desks, clients not knowing who or where to drop off physical copies to, and government backlog from previous submissions, the city was inundated with process slowdown.

The EPR process has since changed things for the better for other municipalities. “It created a siloed interaction and now it is so much more collaborative,” explains Genevieve Pizinger, applications specialist for the City of Westminster. “We did actually create an internal only toolset for our users so they can talk back and forth using Bluebeam; it’s much easier and quicker for them to communicate. And I think it has really opened those doors for clients in the community.” That EPR benefit of ease for clients has also been felt in the City of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where a 30% reduction in backlogged traffic was realized in the initial year the city’s EPR service was introduced.

EPR productivity and the future

The influx of municipalities adopting EPR has created a domino effect within the government sector as more and more agencies realize the benefits of digital collaboration. Standardizing formats and digitally marking up plans in Revu has helped several agencies see the ultimate benefit of a new process—a measurable increase in productivity.

In a sector where ROI is king, being able to prove that the software adoption and implementation is worth it is the key to success. “We’re a government agency, so money and resources are always a top concern for us,” explains LeaAnne Hahnel, Business Systems Analyst for the State of North Carolina. Since implementing Bluebeam Revu for EPR, the State of North Carolina has seen a 39% increase in productivity, measured in the hours necessary for multi-discipline reviews. “Some [reviews] were weeks, you know, depending on what type of review was coming in,” explains. “Now all four disciplines can review that document simultaneously within that Bluebeam session.”

Results like a 39% increase in productivity are hard to ignore, and the digitalization of governmental processes is also being embraced due to the general integration of technology within society at large. “Government isn’t always the quickest to take on new technologies,” says Pizinger. “You go grocery shopping online, you can give money online, you do everything online now. So, it just kind of makes sense that [EPR] is the way we’re moving, and I think other agencies will get there.”