Connecting state and local government leaders
With cloud-based solutions, infrastructure planners can collaborate, prioritize projects and streamline permitting, funding and compliance.
As state and local governments prepare for the gush of federal funds to jumpstart their backlogged infrastructure projects, experts have warned that they will need more technology to manage the programs’ permits, funding, scheduling and compliance.
Previously, project managers would rely on paper-based permitting and track funding and expenses on spreadsheets. Now though, many governments are turning to cloud solutions to streamline their project management.
Besides improving access for onsite and remote employees, boosting security and streamlining workflows, the cloud-based project management tools also help agencies limit brain drain as employees retire, taking institutional knowledge with them.
“The first thing is to realize that you can't do it manually, or you're out of the race already,” said Balaji Sreenivasan, CEO and founder of software company Aurigo. “The programs are getting more complex, projects are getting larger, funding is getting bigger, and there are more stakeholders with more of them working hybrid today than ever before. Collaborating between the different stakeholders is becoming extremely difficult.”
Brian Wick, vice president of product marketing at cloud software company Accela, said the old system would often lead to processing delays, putting the brakes on projects waiting for permit approvals. That inefficiency is not acceptable in the modern world, he said.
Manual processes could also mean a senior official—elected or otherwise—could move a “pet project” to the front of the line, Sreenivasan said.
Cloud-based project management platforms help infrastructure planners keep track of a project’s progress from beginning to end, from permits and funding mechanisms through construction and analysis of their impacts on infrastructure and residents.
The Aurigo system, for example, produces a weighted score that allows planners to prioritize projects based on existing infrastructure deficiencies and future impact. It provides “a lot of organization to an otherwise very chaotic process,” Sreenivasan said.
Within that planning process, governments are moving applications for permits and business licenses to the cloud to speed processing.
For example, the Building Division in Manatee County, Florida, processed nearly 60,000 building permits in 2022, a 34% increase from the previous year, by using a cloud-based permitting solution from grant management software firm Euna Solutions. Administrative applications processed by county planners also jumped 16% year-on-year, company officials said.
Company CEO Craig Ross said speeding up administrative services helps “drive efficiency and provide citizens with the ability to fully understand what's involved with getting a permit or opening a business.”
That all contributes to what Wick said is governments’ efforts to provide a customer experience akin to Amazon or eBay. Residents and businesses want to submit documents, pay fees and generally navigate the permitting process online.
“That's really driving agencies to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be easy to do business with, we've got to provide our residents that consumer-like experience,’” Wick said. “We can't do that with paper and pencil, forcing them to come into offices to pay checks, or stand in line and provide multiple printouts of their engineering docs or plans, just to get a permit through.”
As well as helping local leaders keep track of projects, permits and the overall process, project management platforms also allow officials to monitor funding, which is especially useful for compliance reporting and audits. Many infrastructure projects now rely on a complex mix of state, local and federal funds, with the latter often having significant restrictions on where and how they can be spent by localities.
Ross said grants management has become especially important in the last couple of years, as federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law injects billions into local economies, all with restrictions, guardrails and the threat of congressional oversight. Using technology to keep a program on track is far more efficient and more likely to stand up to compliance reporting and auditing than paper and spreadsheets.
Cloud-based solutions have improved community engagement on municipal projects, too. When transit managers want to test new bus routes, for example, residents can access the plans in real time, explore their impacts and leave comments for staff to review. That means “everyone's on the same sheet of planning music,” said Eric Gardiner, director of East Coast partnerships at Via, which owns the Remix transit planning tool.
It is still incumbent on governments to not rely too heavily on technology-driven community engagement, however, Wick said. Leaders should continue to embrace “multi-channel communication” to ensure as many residents’ voices are heard as possible, he added.
He also warned governments to not just automate inefficient permitting and project management processes, but to look at those processes themselves and see how they can be improved. “Don’t pave the cow paths,” Wick added.
Federal representatives said they are hopeful that with better partnerships and engagement between local governments and their communities, the infrastructure planning process can help produce better outcomes. Using tech to increase transparency and collaboration can help reach that goal.
“I feel that if we can collectively define projects that we need to improve our community, this is again at the state and local level, having plans in place is going to help continue to build a robust transportation infrastructure,” said Yvette Taylor, Region 4 Administrator at the Federal Transit Administration, during the GovExec State and Local Government Tech Summit last month.
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