Streamlining and simplifying economic development approval processes

As the disruptive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic linger, forward-looking local government leaders are focused on strengthening the agility, adaptability and sustainability of their organizations as they move through the reopening and recovery stages towards a reset to the “new normal.” A primary imperative, voiced by many, is the need to accelerate economic development in their communities and effectively wield all available tools to do so. Streamlining and simplifying the regulatory processes that govern community development activity can be one such tool in a comprehensive COVID-19 economic recovery strategy toolkit.

Do you need a development process analysis?

Symptoms that might lead a community to consider a development process review include:

  • Developer complaints that review and approval processes are too slow, unresponsive or inconsistent
  • Loss of significant development opportunities to other communities
  • Process bottlenecks backlog plan reviews, permits and/or inspections
  • Excessive reliance on manual, paper-based processes to complete basic tasks

A development process analysis framework

As shown in the graphic below, the typical land development regulatory process involves a sequential set of tasks that support a systematic development plan evaluation. From initial pre-application conferences, through the submittal of applications and plans for review, public hearings, appearances before planning and governing bodies for approval, inspections and final certificates of occupancy, significant time and resources are expended to assure the quality, safety and compliance of development consistent with community standards. These primary process steps are supported by additional processes to ensure customer service, financial controls and data accuracy. Depending on the size of the development project under review, this process can consume considerable time and costs on the part of both applicants and regulators. Communities that have – or are perceived to have – cumbersome, excessively complex or inconsistent development processes risk reputational damage in the development community that can impair their ability to attract the quality of future development they desire.

“Customer-friendly” development processes based on best practices share many essential attributes. They are characterized by:

  • Teamwork and collaboration with and among the applicant and the various municipal departments involved in the approval process
  • Thoughtfully designed organizational structures that minimize “handoffs” from department to department
  • Robust technology support for both applicants and reviewers
  • Accurately documented and readily accessible online information regarding development standards, expectations and processes
  • Competent staff empowered to make decisions
  • The availability of expedited plan review and inspection options
  • Process transparency, including the ability to track the status of applications and other submittals as they progress through the process
  • A formalized quality assurance program to ensure the consistency, accuracy and timeliness of results
  • Performance standards that are measured, analyzed, tracked and published
  • Transparent, cost-based and market-competitive development fees

A thorough analysis and redesign of development processes will usually involve the following elements:

  • Review and mapping of the current or “as-is” development process
  • Engagement among the development community, including investors, developers, designers, contractors, economic development professionals and other stakeholders – via surveys, focus groups and interviews to understand their issues and concerns
  • Assessment of the technology used to support development plan submittal, review, permitting and inspection
  • Identification of unnecessary or redundant activities, process bottlenecks or pinch-points, excessive departmental handoffs, manual interventions and similar process issues and constraints
  • Design and documentation of the future or “to-be” development process
  • Identification of gaps between the “as-is” and “to-be” processes and the organizational, procedural, policy, technological and other changes required to close them
  • Pilot testing and refining new processes and technology
  • Communication, training and rolling out the final process changes to the organization and customers
  • Monitoring results and making adjustments as warranted


Undertaking a thorough assessment of the land development process, enlisting the support and participation of the development community in the assessment and implementing changes designed to streamline and simplify the customer experience demonstrates a commitment to the long-term economic vitality of the community. Furthermore, ensuring an efficient and effective development process can enable both development prospects and city decision-makers to focus on realizing the community’s economic development vision rather than the mechanical details of the regulatory process.

Baker Tilly can help

For more information, or to learn how Baker Tilly’s public sector economic development specialists can help, contact our team.

Matt Eckerle
David W. Eisenlohr
Managing Director
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