From the auditor: “Regulatory Reform: Improving Permit Timeliness”

The state auditor’s office (SAO) has been working on a series of performance audits of state regulations. The first piece, an inventory of regulations, was finished in 2011, and the second piece, “Communicating Regulatory Information and Streamlining Business Rules,” was finished in 2012. (For more on these, see our 2012 policy brief, “A Complex Maze of State and Local Laws and Regulations.”)

This week, the SAO has released the third piece, “Improving Permit Timeliness.” It asks: “Do regulatory agencies and their business customers know how long it takes agencies to make permit decisions?” and “Are there opportunities to reduce the time it takes regulatory agencies to make permit decisions?” The report’s summary of findings:

. . . state agencies could shorten the time it takes to submit, review, and make decisions on business permit applications through simple improvements. Agencies and businesses don’t always know how long processes take, because not all agencies measure permitting times or provide that information online. Regulatory agencies can improve permit processing times by providing more information and assistance as businesses are preparing their applications, by measuring how long permit decisions take, and using that data and other measures to identify and correct process bottlenecks.

The report surveyed agencies and businesses and reviewed some permit decisions. From the business survey, “The lowest scoring question, and therefore the category with the most opportunity for improvement, was ‘informed about permit time,’ with 17 percent of respondents who disagreed or strongly disagreed.” Additionally, “Applicants also gave lower scores to the reasonableness of the issue time and the willingness of staff to find innovative solutions to problems that arise in the permitting process.”

The report found that “Agencies formally track processing times for less than two-thirds (62 percent) of the states’ business permits, and tracking is inconsistent. Some agencies begin tracking as soon as the permit application is submitted; others begin tracking once the application is deemed complete. Slightly more than half (57 percent) of all business permits have formal decision-time targets found in statute, rule, or policy.”

Agencies have made some improvement this year: “In our first regulatory reform audit, we found that agencies provided business permit processing times online or on the application forms for only 15 percent of permits. Since then, some agencies have improved their online information, and overall, agencies now provide decision times for 40 percent of all permits.”

The report includes several recommendations:

  • First, each agency should (for all permits): “Measure the time it takes to make a permit decision (for permits taking longer than two weeks, measure both the time from initial application to a complete application, and the time from a complete application to a decision);” “Provide businesses, either on the website or permit application form, an estimate of the time required to process the application;” “Report to the Legislature each year for the next four years on the percentage of its permits that list the processing time on the website or application form.”
  • Second, agencies should “develop and publish online performance measures and targets for improvements for permits that take longer than an average of two weeks from initial application to a decision (representing various phases of the process)” and “report annually to the Legislature on how they use their data to improve their permit processes, beginning with those with the lowest customer satisfaction or the highest number of applicants.”
  • Third, the governor’s office should “compile effective permit process streamlining practices of Washington’s regulatory agencies based on their reports to the Legislature, as well as from other research on best permitting practices from around the country, and produce a report by December 31, 2014.”
  • Fourth, agencies should provide on their websites “a list of the types of assistance available, how to access them, and the maximum time an applicant will wait for a response.”