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Ontario building departments rapidly adapt to remote work

The Municipality of Grey Highlands, Ontario

July 1, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, municipalities across the province have had to conduct business differently. This spring, numerous municipal building departments across the province have swiftly implemented e-permitting platforms to allow employees and the public to socially distance.

With no interruption to service delivery, the Municipality of Grey Highlands Building Department has pivoted seamlessly to the “new normal” with the help of a cloud-based e-permitting platform called Cloudpermit.

Grey Highlands, a municipality southwest of Georgian Bay, has a population of 10,000 and a land mass 40 per cent larger than the City of Toronto. Serving the 883-square-kilometre area has provided unique challenges, but the online permit system has significantly reduced the number of required trips across the sprawling rural community.

“Our team has been incredibly flexible and responsive to the new challenge,” said Debbie Anderson, Chief Building Official for Grey Highlands.“With Cloudpermit, we can access our permits from anywhere, so our staff easily transitioned to working from home.”

Residents now submit their building permit applications online rather than visiting their municipal office. While GreyHighlands building inspectors must continue their essential work of in-person inspections, they now screen applicants through Cloudpermit first to ensure they are following the new safety protocols. The inspectors input their reports at the building site on a personal tablet rather than passing around paper documentation and then complete their additional work from home.

“All the files are attached to the record and everyone can track a permit’s status in real time. It is so much more efficient and transparent,”Anderson said. “We have also decided to scan our active permits from before the implementation into the system. They still have their original permit numbers and we can easily append new documents to the files like site plans or conservation authority approvals.”

All the municipal departments of Grey Highlands that review permits have embraced the platform. The finance, planning, public utilities and fire departments can access and update records. During virtual meetings, municipal staff have found it simple to discuss and share documents while they are all logged in.

“Digitizing our processes was an important next step for us anyways, but the timing of the implementation has allowed us to adjust very smoothly during this pandemic,” Anderson shared. “The helpful Cloudpermit team was able to install, update and support the system remotely with no downtime. In the first two weeks of the COVID-19 shut-down, we issued 40 permits online! It was an especially busy time for us, but we were prepared.”

As the world begins to rebound from the first wave of this pandemic, it is predicted that there will be a global reckoning on how businesses work in the future. Employees who have benefited from the convenience and accessibility of working from home have proven to their companies that remote work can also be extremely efficient. There may be a push for more remote accommodations long after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

Implementing a paperless system like Cloudpermit should be an integral part of crisis preparedness, with the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 or even another novel virus. But a digitized permit system improves efficiency, transparency, cost savings and equity at any time. With e-permitting systems like Cloudpermit, forward-thinking municipal building departments across Ontario will realize that they can achieve much more than a return to “business as usual”.

Cloudpermit is offering to all Canadian municipal building departments a free trial, until the end of September 2020, including remote implementation and training.

The article is published in OBOA Journal and Municipal World July 2020 issues. Link to article in Municipal World.