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Efficiency Through Integration: Streamlining Land Management Processes in Fairfax County

Tackling Tech Debt: The Key to Fairfax’s Modernization

Imagine a county grappling with an aging, 25-year-old application infrastructure, a labyrinth of eight isolated systems, and the exorbitant costs of upkeep. Their existing tools
could no longer meet the expectations of a modern, tech-savvy populace who are used to the convenience and simplicity of mobile apps.

The county faced rising maintenance costs, and an expanding expertise gap as long-time employees began to retire and could not keep up with the demands from both citizens and staff to provide a modern, intuitive experience to interact through. As these systems grew, the county accumulated a large amount of technical debt, challenging its ability to continue evolving those internally-built systems.

Citizens had long used a disconnected web of systems each with their own front end to accomplish their tasks when working with the county on land use activities such as planning, zoning, building, environment, health, and fire, in addition to the permits and reviews needed for each. Data was not portable between those systems which meant starting over each time a new department was engaged and prevented departments from easily sharing data internally.

Fairfax County was not just looking to enhance citizen engagement. Their mission extended to empowering their dedicated staff, who were constrained by outdated and inefficient tools. The goals were significant but achievable — to create a solution that unified six distinct agencies by fostering collaboration and data-sharing among departments to create a more efficient, effective, and user-friendly solution on a platform that enabled all their goals.

For governments of every size, this is a familiar stage in the lifecycle of internally-built systems that cannot be efficiently maintained or grown to meet modernization demands such as mobile access, data management, and analytics. Accela helps government agencies find a lifeline through a common platform and configurable Civic Applications built for specific use cases using our decades of experience in building, planning, permitting, code enforcement, licensing, and more. Our goal is to help customers focus on delivering great service to their community with tools that scale easily from small towns to the most populous states.

The Most Ambitious Technical Project in Fairfax County History

In 2020, led by Randhir Singh, Director of Land Planning & Development Systems Branch (Department of Information Technology), Fairfax adopted Accela’s Civic Platform and focused on building a land use solution that would deliver impactful results to the six agencies involved in their land use application approval processes from front to back. Fairfax County worked not only with all internal departments and stakeholders on the solution but also brought in their largest users as external stakeholders to review prototypes as development took place. Those large users include major developers and construction firms who shared that the new system has made their lives easier, supports them better, and importantly helps them get their projects to market quicker.

What formerly took eight systems is now handled entirely within Accela in a system that Fairfax County has named PLUS (Planning and Land Use System), using record types and permits configured for each department and workflows that intelligently route tasks and documents to the right staff member. More than 220 unique permitting processes have been automated through an intuitive citizen-facing system that is easy to navigate and gets them to the right place based on their needs. Fairfax continues to build toward a seamless process for citizens where one engagement enables them to interact with all relevant departments to achieve their goals.

Because land use is geocentric, Fairfax County utilizes Accela’s GIS capabilities as a touchstone for its new system. Having location intelligence available instantly has been a key improvement for citizens to know if what they want to do and where they want to do it is possible and for staff to gain efficiencies by quickly understanding if the location is impacted by zoning rules and other relevant regulations. Inspectors have realized significant improvements using GIS to automatically route their daily activities to perform inspections and take photos currently leveraging the internet connectivity on their tablets.

Fairfax County also developed an in-house data warehouse by collecting requirements from each participating agency to meet their ad hoc reporting needs using the Power BI enterprise platform to deliver intuitive dashboards and modernize reporting.

Of their success, Randhir Singh said, “County staff can quickly link a site plan to a building record, a rezoning to a site plan, or an unpermitted violation to a building record, etc. with a few clicks. This eliminates the need to look at any other system or reach out to a colleague to ask a question.”

Measuring Success

While every organization measures success in different ways, Fairfax has seen significant improvement to their internal processes as well as being recognized by as the best government to do business within the commercial development space.

In July 2023, Fairfax County was ranked number one for best building permitting process in the United States by the NAIOP Research Foundation, a nonprofit established by the Commercial Real Estate Development Association in 2000. 100 communities in the United States and Canada were evaluated based on accountability, transparency, and consistency with Fairfax displaying high performance in all areas with specific recognition for its accountability measures and a permit application process that’s both flexible and dynamic based on each project’s needs.

The county has identified five key areas that best illustrate its success to date with Accela and has set a path for innovation and expansion with its internal partners in land use:

  • Significantly reduces the processing time for intake, review, and approvals.
  • Significantly reduces foot traffic with electronic plan submittals and approvals.
  • IT staff now focus more on developing strategic skill vs. learning how to support legacy systems.
  • Accela’s implementation has added speed, consistency, predictability, accountability, and transparency to the County’s permit review and approval process.
  • Agency leaders continue to approach their counterparts using the PLUS system to expand Accela more broadly across departments and use cases.


Looking Forward to a Bright Future

Fairfax County continues to work toward meeting and exceeding demands by bringing the best possible experience to its staff and citizens by increasing efficiency and transparency (sharing metrics, application processing times), and proactively sharing the data and insights that drive the decisions of good government.

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