The Bratton Team

Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting launches revamped website in effort to improve efficiency

By Stephanie Salmons – Reporter, Pacific Business News

Nov 29, 2022

The City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting has launched a new, revamped website as part of efforts to modernize the department and improve its effectiveness and efficiency, it was recently announced.

The new website, which the department says will offer a more “customer-friendly layout designed to help users more easily navigate the many services offered,” can be found at honolulu.gov/dpp.

According to an announcement from DPP, the site includes a “Permitting Process Improvements,” or PPI, tab that serves as a source for industry members, property owners and design professionals to find the latest changes to the permitting process, checklists, references, forms and interpretations.

DPP this month also implemented an automated computer bot to help review electronic building permit application plans and address approximately 3,500 applications currently backlogged in the prescreening queue, the department said.

According to the announcement, the bot reviews four of the 11 checklist items in the prescreen phase of the building permit process for basic formatting prior to code review by examiners.

“By January 2023, the bot should be fully functional, reviewing most, if not all, of the 11 checklist items and substantially cutting down the prescreen backlog,” the announcement noted.

Applicants will now receive an email if plans do not meet at least one of the four checklist items, as well as a link to the PPI tab for guidance on how to fulfill the outstanding items, DPP said, also noting that applicants can immediately resubmit plans following revisions that conform to the checklist.

“The new DPP website serves as an important platform to more readily inform and service the public as we continue to modernize and streamline processes,” DPP Acting Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna said in a statement. “I am thankful and proud of our staff who developed the new website in-house, continue to program and develop the bot, and are dedicated to improving our service to the public.”

In a statement provided to Pacific Business News, Takeuchi Apuna said the new site was developed by DPP staff across divisions, with assistance from the city’s Department of Information Technology and Department of Customer Services.

“Over the course of about a year, the staff met to design and organize and reformat content and style to provide a website with a more customer-friendly feel,” she said. “This effort was at no additional cost to taxpayers.”

Permitting process update

Takeuchi Apuna — who was named acting director of DPP in September following the resignation of former Director Dean Uchida — earlier this month provided an update on the building permit process to members of Honolulu City Council’s committee on Executive Matters and Legal Affairs.

At that time, she told the committee there are approximately 6,000 residential building permits currently within the permitting process, and that it takes an average of 298 days, or nearly 10 months, from the time a permit application is submitted to when it is approved.

Speaking specifically about the residential permitting process, Takeuchi Apuna said the queue for the manual prescreening process, which is “where you want to ensure that the content and information on the plans are there, which is needed for the code review,” is about 175 days, while the actual prescreening review takes about three days — a total of around six months. There are about 3,500 applications in this first phase.

In the second phase — code review and agency routing — the queue is about 20 days and the process itself takes approximately 40 days. There are approximately 1,950 applications in this phase currently.

The third and final phase — approve to issue — is another manual step in the process that takes about 60 days to complete. There are about 550 applications in this phase.

During her presentation, Takeuchi Apuna also highlighted ongoing, mid-term and long-term goals to improve the permitting process.

In addition to automating parts of the process, which could help speed up permitting, DPP is working to improve staffing and workflows.

“Staffing is huge because not only do we have a very high vacancy rate, but we just have never kept up with the growth in permits, the complexity of ordinances, so we need to add to our staff,” Takeuchi Apuna said.

There are currently 26 residential code examiner positions, 24 of which are filled, and 23 commercial code examiner positions, of which 17 are filled.

Takeuchi Apuna said to build capacity, DPP will fill two residential code examiner vacancies and six clerks will be moved from prescreening to the plans examiner side once the automation bot is fully functional. DPP also is looking at bringing in interns but still needs potentially 15 more residential code examiners, she explained.

In terms of commercial code examiners, she said six vacancies need to be filled and the department also has been budgeted to hire 15 engineers — mechanical, electrical and plans examiners.

“With that we also need to provide training and standard operating procedures so that everything is consistent and efficient with our workforce, enabling us to do this process the best way we can,” Takeuchi Apuna said. “Secondly, we’re looking at reengineering the process. Whether it makes sense for us to have it bifurcated by residential and commercial, we’re looking at [that]. Currently there’s a single line, where all these building permits file into and we do believe some of the bigger projects are holding up the simpler ones. … We want to reengineer the process to make it more efficient.”

Other ongoing efforts include collaboration with different industry groups, developing application instructions and standard operating procedures, and computer upgrades.

Mid-term goals, to roll out in six months to a year, include automating the final phase of the permitting process, reengineering workflows, streamlining ordinances, upgrading the ePlans system, and staff training for consistency and efficiency.

Among goals in the next one to three years, Takeuchi Apuna said DPP wants to undertake permitting software modernization and departmental reorganization.