Florida Plan Review – Saving Trees, Time and Stamps

Diann Worzala – Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) Division of Hotels and Restaurants, State of Florida

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Background

At the height of a national recession, the state of Florida’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants Plan Review Office took innovative steps to not only help businesses open and expand faster, but also to increase its efficiency to save money and valuable resources. A huge side benefit is that the division’s enhanced use of technology allowed it to operate in a more environmentally friendly manner with these changes.

Florida’s statewide restaurant plan review process saves “Time, Trees & Stamps” while accelerating the licensing process, improving customer service and protecting public health. Program savings include the elimination of postage, electronic submission of plans, and 100% paperless document storage for immediate statewide electronic access to files.

Conceptually, the centralization project involved adapting existing technology to an existing process, and as such, can be duplicated by any regulating agency willing to creatively consider new methods of operation.

The division takes pride in being one of the leading food safety programs in the nation and is currently enrolled in the voluntary U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Program Standards. A strong plan review program is necessary for the division to be able to meet Standard 1 of the FDA Program Standards. The division’s current program serves as a model for other state and local jurisdictions in its customer-friendly, technically-accurate and innovative approach to plan review and has been recognized nationally for government innovation.

Problem

Although the division already met Standard 1 of the FDA Program Standards, the plan review program was fragmented between seven state offices and lacked consistency and uniformity. Problems identified with the previous program included:

  • Delays in getting businesses opened and operating
  • Customer (Food Service Operator) complaints
  • Significant staff workload inequities across the state (see chart below)
  • Statewide quality problems
  • Mailing delays
  • Taking inspection staff away from their duties to assist in high volume offices
  • More than $57,000 in annual shipping and storage costs

Solution – The Change Begins

In early 2007, the division identified potential program improvements and efficiency gains that could be attained by centralizing the plan review program. The planning phase for this project began in May 2007. Planning included creating a project proposal and discussions with industry stakeholders.

DBPR Leadership saw that centralization with an emphasis on the use of available technology was the key to resolve previous problems. Implementation started in August 2007. Over the next seventeen months, each of the district plan review offices was moved in a staggered timeline to ensure a smooth transition and effective customer communication. Implementation was successfully completed January 20, 2009.

Florida has the first statewide-centralized food service plan review program. Plan review centralization achieved the following benefits:

  • Aggressive attention to national science-based policies supports the continuing trend for decreasing incidents of food borne illness outbreaks in Florida’s restaurants.
  • Reduced plan review turnaround time on average by ten (10) days, which accelerates the licensing process.
  • Electronic storage reduced the number of documents requiring submission, as well as the amount of space to store paper files.
  • All paper that is not returned to customers is recycled.
  • File retrieval is now accessed within seconds, resulting in prompt customer service.
  • Internal and external customer satisfaction is achieved through the higher level of accountability and information sharing this system provides.
  • Resolved workload equity issues
  • Addressed and corrected quality control problems

When centralization was complete, the plan review program adapted and implemented a system similar to the Florida Department of Transportation electronic submittal and processing of shop drawings. This electronic submittal provided added value to the Department and the industry it serves by shortening turnaround times for approval, reduction of shipping and reproduction costs, and getting businesses open and operating faster than ever before.

Costs – Impact for the State of Florida

The division’s process enhancements greatly improved customer service, saved internal costs and did not disrupt government processes or require the passage of any new legislation. There was no additional cost for the enhancements to the program because existing funds were reallocated for the changes.

The combination of centralization of plan review and the electronic submission enhancement not only saved the division valuable resources, but has also provided a significant cost saving for the public it serves. The plan review program is totally fee-supported and does not receive any money from general revenue. The cost of each individual plan review is funded completely by the food service operator, with fees that are lower than the national average.

Positive outcomes: The future benefits of this process are only beginning to be realized. In addition to fiscal improvements, the program also addresses food safety concerns and advances objectives set out in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “Healthy People 2020” initiative, which lists food safety as one of its 42 priority areas.

During the last decade, the division has actively sought national recognition through the FDA’s set of benchmark standards for programs of our type. Not simply a list of minimum requirements, these are the gold standard for retail food safety inspection programs. There are currently 357 programs enrolled, and the division is the largest restaurant inspection program to achieve five of the nine FDA standards. No restaurant inspection program of this size in the nation has achieved more in this effort.

Since 2008, 1,234 of 1,500 restaurant plans have been submitted electronically. This state-of-the- art process improves turnaround and response times while providing customers with a user friendly, time saving alternative. Customer feedback indicates this option has saved certain businesses an estimated $1500 per plan review.

Florida TaxWatch, a private, non-profit, non-partisan research institute that is widely recognized as the watchdog of citizens’ hard-earned tax dollars, recognized the division through multiple Prudential – Davis Productivity Awards for its innovation, dedication and commitment to excellence while enhancing productivity within state government and the lives of Florida’s citizens.

The division received a 2009 Certificate of Commendation for savings and cost avoidance of approximately $600,000 during their first year of centralization. The electronic storage of documents reduced the office space needed and saved $12,370. Total shipping costs for the previous year was $45,000, which was not incurred the following year as a result of centralization. On average, the number of days to review and approve plans was reduced by 4 days per review in the first year of centralization, and has now been reduced by an average of 10 days. Conservatively, this was an added value to our licensees of $545,000 in the first year of centralization. Florida TaxWatch awarded the division a 2010 Certificate of Commendation for savings and cost avoidance of approximately $768,000.

The model plan review program was also recognized in 2010 by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in the inaugural year of its Bright Ideas program. Bright Ideas is designed to recognize and share creative government initiatives around the country with interested public sector, nonprofit and academic communities. The most important praise the division can receive is from the food service industry it regulates, which has expressed thanks to the Florida Governor, for the outstanding positive results of the enhancements to the plan review program.

Applicability to Massachusetts/Conclusion

Any state could profit from this idea, if food service plan review was consolidated from multiple authorities having jurisdiction into one centralized location. The centralized plan review allows a jurisdiction to use one standard under the FDA guidelines that eliminates different interpretation of the rules (and application procedures) while reducing approval times across the state. Use of existing technology can also vastly reduce expense and resources if information can be shared through an interconnected database.

Florida’s state-wide food service plan review, licensing and inspection programs ensure that every food service from Pensacola to Key West is held to the same standard and receives the same benefits.

The Division of Hotels and Restaurants has provided the sanitary review of food service establishments for approximately 17 years. Originally, plan review was conducted on food service establishments for the division by the local health departments, via a memorandum of understanding. In most areas of Florida, local building officials require plans to be approved by the division prior to the building department reviewing and/or approving the plans.

Statewide, building department personnel rely on the division’s expertise in evaluating the design and layout of food services – and then apply their expertise to more general construction requirements. Even though both the building departments and the division conduct plan reviews, because each concentrates on a different area of expertise, there is no conflict or redundancy in the application of code requirements – it is a symbiotic relationship where each agency relies on the other to obtain the best outcome for the customer.

Tech specs: It is important to remember that the centralization project and electronic enhancements were instituted utilizing existing equipment and technology adapted to the specific program. For example, the statewide database storage system was instituted in 2009 for the Department as a whole. Prior to the change, plan review utilized standard Microsoft data storage.

Even if another state did not have the same interconnectivity with databases (Florida uses both LicenseEase and OnBase systems), a centralization of plan review is practical because plans can be scanned at full size and emailed to satellite offices as PDF or TIFF files for local inspection.

Florida found in early testing that 42” x 30” plans can be scanned and stored at less than 3 megabytes (MB) per file as a CMYK (24 bit color), at 150 DPI (dots per inch) in the TIFF file type with the Océ cs4142 scanner. The use of color is important for Florida, because while most plans are drawn in black, plan reviewers in Florida use a color-coded highlight system to help inspectors verify compliance and speed up the inspection and licensing process.

Plans can be submitted electronically through email as JPEG, TIFF or PDF files to the plan review office (along with application and other required documents), where they are printed for review. Fees can be paid instantly over the phone or online once the packet is received and a confirmation is sent to the applicant. Approved plans are stamped and rescanned for electronic return to the applicant, and transferred electronically to a local office for the inspector to use and stored in the database.

The use of technology to scan each individual plan and disseminate approval packets on demand can also enhance the government’s response time to the people it serves. The statewide network of data storage and shared access allows state offices in Florida to provide localized customer service for food service operators, and to update viewable records in real time on the network.

At the present, DBPR is working on an enhancement to the electronic submission process that will allow customers to pay for the plan review online in the same form when they upload plans and application files. In the future, since all plans are scanned and stored electronically, one day if technology becomes affordable, it may be possible for field inspectors to complete opening inspections by downloading digital plans to a tablet (such as an iPad or comparable tablet technology) for instant review.

Contact the Author:
Diann Worzala
Deputy Director
Florida DBPR – Division of Hotels and Restaurants
1940 North Monroe Street
Tallahassee, Florida 32399
Phone: 850-488-1133
Fax: 850-921-8267
Email: diann.worzalla@dbpr.state.fl.us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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