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COVID-19 fast-tracks digital transformation development process

Russell Hixson
COVID-19 fast-tracks digital transformation development process
PROVINCE OF B.C. - Vancouver has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to fast-track digital upgrades to its development permit process, which city officials say is already leading to shorter wait times.

COVID-19 has fast-tracked a multi-year effort to streamline Vancouver’s development and permit processes that will forever change how building projects are approved in the city.

While it was a direction the city was already moving in, construction being deemed an essential sector during the pandemic pushed city officials to rapidly move from a paper-based system with in-person meetings and review, to a digital ecosystem where people can apply, meet and participate from anywhere.

“It hasn’t been a single overarching project but rather a series of continuous improvement efforts,” explained Jessie Adcock, general manager for development, buildings and licensing with the city.

Adcock, who has an extensive background in technology, was given the position several months ago. In her new role, she was tasked with using her technical expertise to take the department to the next level.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the pressure to digitize the department was on.

“That mandate was fast-tracked,” said Adcock. “In a short period of time we had to take our business model virtual. Construction and development was deemed essential to the economy. It was stuff we had already had been planning, but COVID just gave us the opportunity to do it faster.”

The changes include options for online permits, virtual project review appointments, virtual meetings, online community engagement and virtual inspections.

The changes also include live online chat and web improvements to make information easier to find online, and updates to development and building permit webpages. Officials have created and published an online engineering design manual as well as standard detail drawings and specifications.

Earlier this month the city hosted its first virtual public hearing.

Adcock noted the trend towards digital processes is global and will continue.

“It’s a real shift in how this industry operates, and it’s a trend we have seen in lots of other sectors,” said Adcock. “And it’s a shift we are making in Vancouver also.”

But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

“There is always a learning curve and we had to do a lot of this under the strain of the COVID-19 response which also creates time pressure,” said Adcock, noting the deployment of new technology created challenges for security, bandwidth storage and privacy. “It wasn’t master-planned. It was a happenstance. Despite lots of challenges, everyone has really shown up and put their best foot forward – applicants, staff and support staff. People really showed up to make sure we could keep the sector moving.”

Adcock explained reducing in-person interactions keeps cars off the road, saves time and makes the process more efficient.

“People were ready for this jump,” said Adcock. “There is a lot to be said about being able to take advantage of that readiness. In some cases, it smooths out the processing time because this compresses the time between points.”

Adcock said while all the data isn’t in, the city is anecdotally seeing reduced increases to its permitting backlogs and faster processing.

“We have gotten lots of letters and emails with the key messages to not go back to pre-COVID-19 days,” she said. “I would say that our team is working really hard, not only to improve process but also making sure we do our part for the economic recovery. The economy has been hit hard. Staff really recognize the role they can play in mitigating those impacts and there is a commitment from staff to support the sector.”

Over the past year the city has also worked on various development process improvement projects including:

  • The Regulation Redesign program, simplifying and clarifying land use regulations to make them easier to understand and implement.
  • Streamlining the process to expedite affordable housing project reviews.
  • Expanding the Commercial Renovation Centre to provide more support to businesses seeking to make changes to their premises.
  • Moving engineering design and construction manuals online.
  • Streamlining engineering rezoning review from 35 weeks to approximately 22 weeks, in addition to other lean six sigma enhancements for the development review process in Engineering Services.
  • Re-establishment of the Policy Implementation Advisory Committee to ensure the effective implementation of new and existing policy.

Establishing a multi-disciplinary group of staff to explore and recommend changes to the development and permitting process with a view of creating more clarity, certainty and predictability in the development review processes.

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