Article: Results of ‘Unnecessarily Difficult’ Permit Process Review ReleasedOctober 25, 2016
By Justyna Tomtas, The Chronicle
Clarity Consulting: Evaluation of Processes in Centralia, Chehalis and Lewis County Result in 21 Recommendations
An external review of the permitting processes in three local jurisdictions has been completed, showing some positive results while also indicating room for improvement.
The project, taken on by Clarity Consulting, focused on the customer experience of the permitting processes in Centralia, Chehalis and Lewis County in relation to building and land use permits.
“The permitting process can really be the grease for getting all that going, or it can also be like molasses,” Kelly Johnston, with Clarity Consulting Partners, told Port of Centralia commissioners last week. “It can slow it down and have a vicious cycle that spirals in on itself.”
Johnston in her report said leading this particular project was “unnecessarily difficult.”
She told port commissioners her experience may be an outlier, but said that personality and politics “are winning regardless of what is in the code.”
“Information was provided in a timely manner, meetings were generally friendly and open,” Johnston wrote in the report.
Johnson cited several difficulties she experienced while completing the project, including agencies that did the bare minimum to respond to requests, a delay in the information requested, comments discounting the project and the value of customer feedback, and a county commissioner who exhibited “hostile and aggressive behavior.”
Johnston also stated the “blame for the challenges related to economic development was repeatedly placed on outside organizations.”
According to Johnston, the project found the permitting processes are doing well overall.
“The key takeaways as port commissioners is there is a lot that is going really well,” Johnston said.
The main strengths revealed in the study included a shared definition of a business-friendly process, high customer service, accessible staff and timeliness throughout the process.
“The last 10 years have seen a great deal of improvement, and the jurisdictions should be commended,” the report said.
Areas to be improved were indicated as urban growth areas, online access, support for commercial and industrial projects and fractured relationships.
In all, 21 recommendations were presented in the review, some focusing on all jurisdictions, while others were directed at specific ones.
City of Centralia
Of the 92 invitations sent out for participation in the survey, 29 people responded, indicating a survey response rate of at least 32 percent.
Respondents said overall the quality of information provided by the city is good. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said it is an understandable process, 57 percent said they received good verbal information, and 67 percent indicated good written information.
Comments from participants were mostly positive, although one comment submitted stated the person felt “unwelcome and indifference, as though I had to apologize for taking up their time.”
The time required to permit also generated mostly positive results, with 64 percent of respondents stating it was completed in a reasonable time, while 54 percent said it was done in a predictable time.
Overall, city departments improved their customer satisfaction scores from the last study conducted in 2009.
According to the report, most respondents believe the system for permitting buildings is working well. Room for improvement landed in the land use/development system.
“There were a few concerns shared that the City doesn’t always have the correct answer for some more complicated land use and development projects,” stated the report. “Given the low volume of these types of projects, staff don’t have routine, frequent exposure to these issues, making it harder.”
Eleven employees also took part in the Denison Organizational Culture Survey, a tool to assess organizational culture. According to the report, there was a decrease in results from 2009, but overall it stated Centralia is performing well.
The results present an opportunity for the city to clarify and strengthen employees’ access to organizational goals, strategic direction and intent, and to provide a strong vision for the city, stated the reported.
City of Chehalis
Thirty people responded to the survey who applied for permits in Chehalis, leading to a response rate of 20 percent. Due to the small number of responses, a 4 to 6 percent increase sometimes resulted from one person’s response.
Chehalis had “exceptional results” in regard to the quality of information, with 92 percent stating it is an understandable process, 84 percent who said the verbal information is clear and helpful and 78 percent who said the written information is good.
No recommendations were provided to improve the city’s timeliness with permits, given the customer response was positive. Customers reported it takes less than four weeks for most projects to get permitted.
“Based on the type of project, Chehalis is working with less complicated and more straightforward projects, so shorter turnaround time is expected,” stated the report. “Overall, however, customers felt that the time required to get a permit was both predictable and reasonable.”
The city also ranked high in terms of customer service. Results were comparable to the 2009 findings, which according to the report, shows Chehalis is sustaining high levels of customer services.
“Clearly, Chehalis is doing many things right in terms of customer service,” states the report. “… We applaud Chehalis for its excellent work.”
The overall impression of the system in Chehalis was also reported to be positive with customers during the permitting process. Concern was noted regarding the amount of staff turnover that has recently taken place in the city, leading some to worry about the historical knowledge that has left the agency. Clarity Consulting made a recommendation to the city to ensure new staff are fully trained and informed.
Chehalis staff did not participate in the Denison Organizational Culture Survey.
As for the county, 102 people responded to the survey, resulting in an 18 percent response rate. The majority of respondents completed a new residential property, and only a small portion worked on land division projects, stated the report.
The report noted projects within the county have differences from those within the cities, including distance between project sites and county offices, as well as utilities that are not in place and therefore must be included as part of a project.
Respondents overall voiced favorable results for the quality of information provided by the county. Eighty-four percent said it is an understandable process, while 77 percent said good verbal information is provided. Seventy-one percent said there is clear and helpful written information.
The report stated the county had made great improvements with the quality of information, but stated there is room for improvement.
Customers would like to see a flow chart, step-by-step process or visual pictures of the process. This resulted in the recommendation to provide these items online and in a hard copy.
Other recommendations included the creation of a process map for legal lot determinations, an organization chart so customers know who they are working with, and the reminder to county staff that customers don’t always know the roles within the county system.
The timeliness of the process has shown steady improvement, according to the report. Sixty percent said permits followed the predictable time, while 74 percent said it took a reasonable amount of time.
“The county is to be commended for their work in improving these areas,” stated the report. For most projects, it takes under 12 weeks to obtain a permit.
Areas of improvement included staff availability after multiple types of customers mentioned it is a challenge to get answers and to keep projects moving forward because of staff unavailability.
Customers also expressed a concern about staffing levels and the potential for overturn.
The customer survey response to interactions with county staff was overall positive, with two out of three people indicating a positive experience with the county.
“There were only a few comments that reflected angry, extremely dissatisfied customers,” stated the report. “Again, this is a marked improvement from previous phases.”
Interactions with permit technicians at the counter revealed several comments from people who “felt they were treated as an inconvenience, minimal effort was put into helping, and at times people were rude,” stated the report. Despite this, the majority of people were satisfied. It did result in a recommendation to improve consistency of customer experience at the counter.
The overall impression of the county’s system improved, with 71 percent agreeing the process is more business-friendly, while only 50 percent felt that way in the 2009 review.
The leadership structure, with three elected commissioners leading multiple county departments, created some problems.
Johnston said one commissioner was adamantly opposed to the project, while one was moderately supportive, and the other was very supportive.
“This creates a dynamic situation for department heads, as they must constantly be meeting the expectations of three different people,” stated the report. “When the commissioners aren’t aligned, as they weren’t for this project, department heads have to sort out the best path forward and thread the needle between differing expectations.”
Seventeen employees took part in the Denison Organizational Culture Study. According to the results, strategic direction and intent, as well as creating change, are the two lowest areas.
Those issues stem from the leadership structure and land use/development processes, stated the report.
About the Permit Study
Project partners on the study included the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce, the Port of Centralia, the Port of Chehalis, the Lewis County branch of Olympia Master Builders and the Industrial Park at TransAlta.
Two similar efforts were undertaken in 2007 and 2009.
Utilizing interviews, focus groups and a customer satisfaction survey with a 17 percent response rate, Kelly Johnston worked to compile customer input.
Also included in the focus groups were commissioners and city executives.
Customers who applied for permits from 2012 to June 2016 were invited to participate.
A Technical Advisory Group, an employee survey and an observation, interviews and artifact review also helped to get a better understanding of the processes.
The report will later be available on the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce website at chamberway.com.