Businessman walking away from a storm of paperwork

How one county dragged its processes out of the Paper Age

Humboldt County is a beautiful place, nestled in northern California along the Pacific coast. It’s home to breathtaking old-growth Redwood forests, majestic mountains and one of the largest concentrations of Victorian manors and architecture outside of New England. The 134,000 residents who live there enjoy mostly rural landscapes with cool, mild summers kissed by ocean breezes.

But over at the county seat in Eureka, a storm was brewing inside the permit office.

Steven Santos is the development assistance manager for Humboldt County. It’s his job to make sure that permits for both the planning and building divisions move through the system smoothly and quickly. That means that everyone from a major developer who wants to build an entire subdivision to an individual homeowner who needs a new roof comes through his office.

“We like the public to be able to think of government as a monolith,” Santos said. “They want to come to one place to get everything done, when in fact there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.”

That behind-the-scenes part of the process is especially true for handling building permits in Humboldt County, where architectural and environmental considerations must be examined for just about every type of construction. Santos gave an example of a county resident needing to build something that encroached near a county road. In that case, the building division needs to send a request to the public works office so that they can inspect the area.

The problem that Humboldt County and Santos was having was that the paper-based system for permitting had been designed years ago to serve a much sleepier community. And it was designed in pieces with no integration. Residents couldn’t track where their permit applications were located in the overall process, so it was mostly guesswork as to how long something would take to get approved. This was creating a lot of frustration which would sometimes spill over into public hearings.

“We were using a wall-sized metal cabinet to store the records,” Santos said. “Receipts were made on three-sheet carbon copy paper, and for special inspection needs, we added Post-it notes to the documents. Other divisions had to walk down and physically get the records out of the cabinet.”

Normal maintenance tasks were also getting out of hand. Santos said that at the end of the month, all receipts needed to be tallied by hand, a process that could sometimes take days.

Santos compensated with some Visual FoxPro databases and Excel spreadsheets to speed things up a bit, but there was still no integration between departments, no ability to track permits going through the process, and no way to know exactly how long a permit approval would take from start to finish.

In truth, Santos and Humboldt County’s problems were not too dissimilar from those in other state and county governments, and even private businesses, that were finding that the old ways of doing things simply wouldn’t hold up to the needs and demands of the 21st century.

Santos asked two vendors with experience setting up the permit processes for other government entities to come in and demo a new system. Almost as an afterthought, Interneer Inc. was also invited. Even though Interneer didn’t have specific experience with the permitting process, the company makes business process management software that is flexible enough to be configured to any need.

That flexibility ultimately won Interneer the job. “We automate everything so that a business person or an analyst can set up a complex database without needing a background in IT,” said Romeo Elias, Interneer’s founder and CEO. “They simply drag and drop fields into place and can automatically set up the different calls and functions using a visual interface.”

Santos used the Interneer software at first to move all the paper forms online, a process he described as being like playing with colorful Legos. It was a matter of stacking them in the order he needed. Once a form’s fields were in place, he was able to perform a single right click to populate them with data from his Visual FoxPro databases and his Excel spreadsheets.

Although you don’t need refined IT skills to create and change the database, Interneer has an SQL backend built on Microsoft’s .NET platform. So someone with database training can get inside the works and manage every aspect of it if they want. Humboldt County paid $10,000 as part of its contract to train an employee who works with Santos to do just that, if needed. Santos said he handles all the light to medium-level tasks, and relies on his trained administrator to do really detailed work.

Humboldt County spent $80,000 getting the Interneer database installed, in addition to the training costs. It runs on a standard database server that connects to a Web server for the front end. Elias said that Interneer could also be set up to run completely in the cloud, with an identical interface to the locally housed version, though he understands that some government agencies like Humboldt would prefer the local version. The county paid $49,000 for 80 seat licenses, and pays $9,900 per year in maintenance fees to keep the software up to date with all the latest patches and improvements. The company plans to deploy an app for the Apple iOS in the coming months, and Humboldt County, along with all of Interneer’s other customers, will get that for no additional charge.

Today, not only is the permit process streamlined, but the public, which technically shares one of the seat licenses, can log into the database and search for permits by project number, giving an instant look at where it stands, what still needs to be done, and how long it will take before final approval. The wall-sized filing cabinets, the FoxPro databases, the Excel spreadsheets and even the Post-it notes have all been retired.

But Santos isn’t resting on his laurels. He maintains a copy of the database on a separate server, which he uses to experiment with tweaks to make the process even more efficient before deploying it over to the live production environment.

As an example, a resident noticed that a certain type of minor permit process, like a homeowner who needs to replace the siding on their home, could be scheduled in advance if they wanted to do it in person at the office. It’s mostly a matter of paying a fee and filling out the forms. But the actual forms that needed to be filled out weren’t actually printed until after the homeowner paid their fee. Santos, based on a suggestion, simply changed the database so that the forms were printed automatically at the time the appointment is scheduled, so they are ready to go as soon as the homeowner arrives. That saved about five minutes per visit, which adds up over time.

The system has other benefits. The end-of-the-month tallying process that used to take three days now lasts about two hours, Santos said. And because the Interneer database is flexible and not tied just to the permitting process, the department is using it to manage timesheets, billing and invoicing processes too. In the near future, Santos would like to deploy Interneer to other departments like Environmental Health and Land Use.

For now, new construction, building and improvements continue in Humboldt County unhindered by the retired tracking system. Residents can easily discover exactly where their permits are in the process, and can even suggest ways that could make their government more efficient; suggestions that have a good chance of quick consideration. And Santos says he’s happy to report that nobody complains about the permit process at public hearings anymore.

With one less thing to worry about, perhaps residents can get back to enjoying those beautiful vistas and striking landscapes that Humboldt County offers, all while their county government works quietly, and much more efficiently, behind the scenes.


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