Are Expedited Permits Worth It?

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Are Expedited Permits Worth It?

Many years ago, I was in a process management class. One of the case-studies was about a customer service helpdesk. To serve the most customers, in the least amount of time, with a finite number of staff, each customer call was given a priority based on the severity of the customer’s issue. Staff tasked to take calls questioned the customer to describe the problems the customer was having. The staff person entered the description into the call-center system. The system assigned a priority to the call and then passed the call to the appropriate staff member based on it priority. This all makes perfect sense.

To challenge the process, one customer continued to call repeatedly to get his/her call moved up in priority. The criteria used by the helpdesk to prioritize calls did not consider how often someone called for the same issue. This was done purposefully. Priority was to be strictly based on the severity of the problem and not the loudness of the caller. Doing otherwise would compromise the efficiency of the process.

When instructor went over the case-study, she said “responding to the squeakiest wheel is THE most inefficient process to follow”. Upon hearing this, I thought to myself, the “squeakiest wheel” approach is equivalent to the expedited permit process.

What is an Expedited Permit?

The expedited permit process is very simple. The applicant pays a regulatory agency an extra fee, on top of the regular application fee, so their application can be given a higher priority. In Texas, at least, the extra fees are stored in a separate pot of money. That separate pot funds staff and resources specific to those expedited permit applications. Sounds simple enough. However, the implementation of this process is far from simple. If there are not enough resources, then what are you paying for?

Take a look at Southwest Airlines. You can pay extra to move up to A1-A15, which boards the plane first and is seated first, provided there are spots available. You pay, but if all the spots are taken, your money is taken and you are stuck with your assigned boarding position just like everybody else. There are only so many seats on the plane. Sounds pretty messed up, but that is how the expedited permit process works, too. Companies may have all the money in the world, but if there are limited resources (there are only so many permit reviewers) they cannot buy resources that do not exist.

Expedited permit rules ignore facts and reality

The concept of the expedited permit application is based on two premises:
• By paying extra, the application is moved to the front of the line (queue) so it is processed first, and
• The extra moneys incentivizes staff to work on expedited applications more efficiently.

On the surface, it looks like a Win-Win situation; applicants get their applications processed sooner and the agency has a revenue stream to keep the best reviewers from being snatched up by consultants and industry, which pay better. This sounds good, however, the reality is much different.

There is More Than One Line

The first premise would be true if each application was handled by one and only one staff member. That is definitely not the case. Each application is touched by numerous staff that each have a specialized skill set to process a certain portion of the application itself or carry out a certain sub-process. The whole process is more efficient that way. When was the last time you saw a house built completely by just one crew of workers? One crew clears the lot, another digs out and prepares the foundation, another pours the concrete to finish the foundation, another builds the framing, a few more for the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC; you get the picture. The same is true of an air quality permit application. There is administrative staff, modelers, toxicologists, and field office staff all involved in the process. Each group has their own workload queues. It would be a nightmare to coordinate everyone’s schedule for each project.

One item that significantly challenges the whole premise of paying to move up in line is, what happens when an application is deficient? If an application is missing or needs more information to be processed, how does it get taken out of line and when does it get back in line? Most applications go through at least one deficiency cycle. Many go through multiple cycles, which could occur at the administrative, technical, or modeling portions of the review. Also, sometimes additional information may start the whole review process over. Where do all of these projects fit into the process? Do they get moved to the end of the line or the front of the line?

TCEQ management and staff have mentioned in passing, for the expedited permit process to work, “give us good applications.” From my experience while at the TCEQ and as a consultant submitting materials to the TCEQ, many applications just don’t have enough information to finish the process. By the time an application is submitted, the project design typically has not progressed far enough to answer all of the regulatory questions necessary for a permit to be issued. Paying extra does get you moved to the front of the line, but it is not going to keep you in line if the information is not there or incorrect.

Most companies wanting to be in the lead in business are always wanting to be one step ahead of the competition. What better way to get ahead than by paying to get moved ahead in the air quality permit application processing line. However, you won’t be getting that far ahead, if at all, if everyone is seeking an expedited permit. If every application review has the highest priority, then none have any priority over another. In Texas, at least, this has already started to happen where everyone wants to be at the head of the line, but there are only so many resources to go around. As a result, even though there was an initial improvement in permit application review times, processing will, if not already, revert to past levels and continue to worsen.

Money Isn’t Always a Carrot

Regulatory agencies have a hard time hanging on to good people. As far as salaries go, government can’t compete with the private sector. However, the base salary is only a part of the total employee compensation. Health care benefits, retirement pension, and flexible schedules are also a part of the compensation equation. Though agencies don’t have control over many of these items, expedited permit programs allowed for an additional revenue stream to at least boost the pay of workers processing the applications being expedited or hiring additional resources to handle the workload. As before, this all makes sense, based on conventional wisdom, but the facts don’t support money alone as an incentive for better efficiency.

There is a limit to how much, and for how long, extra money is going to increase productivity. Research on what motivates workers goes way back. Here are a few references:
https://hbr.org/1993/09/why-incentive-plans-cannot-work
https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/forget-cash-here-are-better-ways-to-motivate-employees

I won’t belabor the point, but you can read through those article listed above and the many others on the same topic.

When it comes to the money, the real problem is related to what was described in the previous section, where there are multiple people involved in the review process. The big question is, how do you distribute the money? How much is given to the administrative clerk or the modeler or the toxicologist? Does the permit reviewer get it all even though other staff provide support to their function? Not an easy question to answer. An accounting system could be devised to track staff hours on individual projects, but is the cost of this system going to eat into the pot of money specific to the expedited permit applications?

Conclusions

My high school basketball coach had a saying: “if you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler.” If everyone is throwing money at the fiddler to get their song played, no one is going to have any music to dance to. That is what continues to happen with any kind of permitting process that tries to expedite application reviews. Superficially (and legislatively) it all sounds so good and simple, but the devil is in the details and this devil was doomed by the plain and simple facts.

There is a Solution, Though

At NaviKnow, we will not make a complaint unless we pose a solution. The simple solution to the air quality permit application review process is better use of technology. There are a lot of details to fill in, but the foundation of our solution is described in a presentation made a few years ago regarding air quality data.

The solution we pose is not something we can create and construct in a vacuum. We don’t believe in the “build it and they will come” business model. We will require input into the process and buy-in to the concepts from the regulators and the regulated. If you want to be a part of the solution, contact us to start the dialog.

If you found this article informative, there is more helpful and actionable information for you. Go to http://learn.naviknow.com to see a list of past webinar mini-courses. Every Wednesday (Webinar Wednesday), NaviKnow is offering FREE webinar mini-courses on topics related to air quality dispersion modeling and air quality permitting. We also have articles air quality issues at http://naviknow.com/news. If you want to be on our email list, drop me a line at [email protected].

One of the goals of NaviKnow is to create an air quality professional community to share ideas and helpful hints like those covered in this article. So if you found this article helpful, please share with a colleague.