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Bridging Departments: Allen County’s Digital Transformation Journey

Allen County, in northeastern Indiana, is a central hub of the region. Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, attracts over 7 million visitors annually, enjoying its exceptional attractions, festivals, arts, parks, and events. The county boasts exceptional growth, with businesses pledging investments of more than $770M in 2023 and issuing more than $2B in building permits, marking seven consecutive years of permits totaling $1B or more.

The deep partnership between Allen County and Fort Wayne involves many departments and employees working together to deliver the best experiences for their residents and business communities. Understanding how Accela’s products and services are designed to help our customers serve theirs is crucial, so we regularly engage with them to learn what’s happening “on the ground.” It’s always fascinating to hear how users configure their applications to meet their unique needs and go beyond the out-of-box capabilities.


Transforming Resident and Staff Experience

We recently spoke with two long-time Accela leaders, Melissa Woodworth and Kate Love-Jacobson, about their experience serving the greater Allen County and Fort Wayne communities. Melissa, the Information Systems and Special Projects Coordinator for the Allen County Department of Health, has utilized Accela since 2009 for various permit divisions, including environmental, septic systems, swimming pools, food protection, lodging, and environmental complaints. Kate, the Permit System Coordinator for Fort Wayne and Allen County, oversees permitting processes across various county and city departments, including Building/Health, Planning Services, Neighborhood Code/Right of Way, and the Highway Department. Both professionals initially managed their processes with paper documentation, which had to be submitted in person and passed between teams at each stage. As the county grew, this system led to significant delays in processing plan reviews and updating applicants, proving increasingly inefficient for the evolving needs of staff and citizens who required modern solutions to modern problems.


Connecting Departments for Better Service

Adopting Accela significantly enhanced internal efficiency by centralizing permit submission and providing instant feedback to establishment owners. Since the digital adoption in 2009, the improvements in internal and customer efficiency have been substantial, with political pressure initially driving the need for a better permit approval process. Currently, 70% of applications are digital, allowing the department to meet fast turnaround goals of 3 days for Planning and 3-5 days for Building, despite high construction activity.

Residents benefit from the system through online status checking for permit applications, reducing the number of necessary contacts. The “one-stop shop” approach for obtaining multiple agency permits has simplified the overall process. Employees benefit from the introduction of “instant permits” for straightforward applications, available online and issued within minutes. The centralized submission system allows for reviews and instant feedback for establishment owners, reducing turnaround times for plan reviews, inspections, and permits. Uniquely, the region also supports a large Amish community that continues to visit the office for assistance. Staff can easily enter the data into the system, avoiding the duplication of efforts with paper-first workflows.


Enhanced Collaboration and Communication

Accela has improved department collaboration through shared workflows requiring input from each group. For example, coordination with the Department of Planning Services for residential septic plans and the Building Department for commercial projects has led to improved awareness and communication among departments. Distributed workflows ensure that the application gets approved as long as everyone approves their part, fostering cultural improvements like better cooperation, communication, collaboration, and a lack of competition for information.

Melissa shared how enthusiasm for Accela is evident through an active internal superuser group that shares expertise and solves problems, saying, “I’m a big fan of Accela and love getting into it. We have an internal superuser group where department heads reach out to each other to have the users share expertise and help with problem-solving.” Additionally, internal experts train other users, bridging city and county operations, with everyone familiar with the same tools from one vendor.


Positive Feedback and Data-Driven Insights

The Health Department has received kudos from operators who appreciate receiving inspection results before the inspector leaves the site. This allows them to quickly understand the necessary actions to keep their projects moving or establishments open. The greatly reduced turnaround times for plan reviews, inspections, and permits have been well-received, and users are thankful for the convenience of not having to visit downtown and wait in line. Quarterly developer meetings have praised the ease of working with the county, finding the systems and processes straightforward. The Permitting Excellence Coalition, consisting of 11 jurisdictions in NE Indiana, discusses how Accela allows them to provide much more data than their colleagues.

Data has become a key resource now that departments are collecting more of it than ever before. The critical aspect has been converting data into insights to help staff and elected officials make more informed decisions and take a more strategic view of the city and county state of affairs when it’s easier to spot trends and share this amongst their experts. At the dual city/county level, reporting is handled by a joint permitting oversight board, including commissioners, the mayor’s office, city and county council members, and a permitting leadership team comprising leaders from each department. This team reports to stakeholders with relevant data and insights, utilizing dashboards and reports to provide critical information. For time accounting at the Health Department, it is essential to demonstrate that the permit cost does not exceed the work performed, requiring proof of inspectors’ time usage based on their salaries. Accela is used to manage a dozen different programs and complaints, ensuring comprehensive oversight and efficiency.

In partnership with Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, has embraced digital solutions, resulting in significant efficiency improvements and faster permit processing times, contributing to its robust growth and substantial business investments. The implementation of Accela has streamlined operations across departments, benefiting residents and employees with convenient online services, real-time updates, and collaborative workflows. Positive feedback from users and ongoing enhancements indicate a bright future, with data-driven insights helping shape strategic decisions and maintain high service standards.

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