Making Inspections Mobile

By Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal • June 5, 2013

This post is part of the Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century City project.

As prices on tablet computers continue to drop and more and more consumers own them, it’s only predictable that we’d see them pop up more often in government. Tablets are particularly well-suited for many kinds of inspections that city, state, and federal governments employ to ensure regulation and protocol are being followed for and by citizens, businesses, or the government’s own assets. Often, the benefits are straightforward. By replacing clipboards and paper with tablets, inspection information can be imported directly into centralized databases, reducing travel time and overhead costs to pick up and deliver paperwork to centralized offices and enter it manually.

Though simple, the gains and savings from digitizing these processes are considerable, reliably paying for initial costs through savings. These efforts can drastically improve customer service and wait times for those requiring inspections in order to move forward with their own projects, and can help agencies eliminate their backlogs when resources may be tighter than ever before. Rarer though are instances where digitization is being used not just to achieve efficiency, but also to change the process itself, allowing for more flexible and responsive regulation with more discretion, but simultaneously more accountability than ever before.

Raising initial funding as well as avoiding design or implementation missteps that might yield unwieldy systems with limited uptake remain substantial challenges. With budgets often set at least a couple of years in advance, tablets and inspection software often must be procured through a reallocation of budget funds set aside for other IT uses. However, alternative funding strategies exist, and might also be able to incentivize user-friendly and effective design. Baltimore’s Department of Environmental Health has been using a tablet-based inspection process to regulate its schools, food facilities, day-cares, and the like, funded by earmarked city monies. However, this funding is coming in the form of a loan from the city’s recently established revolving innovation fund rather than a grant or transfer. The savings generated through the new process are intended to pay back this initial loan, and this obligation of payback is thought to help add pressure to get this new system right and actually capture increased efficiency from the department’s employees. This budgetary mechanism may help avoid missteps like that experienced by King County, Washington’s Department of Assessments, now on its second generation of inspection tablets after the first generated fewer efficiency gains due to low battery-life and usability issues.

Rarer though are instances where digitization is being used not just to achieve efficiency, but also to change the process itself, allowing for more flexible and responsive regulation with more discretion, but simultaneously more accountability than ever before.

Accela has taken a different strategy to add in flexibility to avert mistakes: rather than developing its inspection app for a single platform as is often the case, it had it designed for the three major platforms so inspectors can pick that which they’re most comfortable with and the program isn’t technology dependent. Such an approach may also help mesh digital inspections with the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives that continue to gain popularity across government offices.

The federal government faces many of the same challenges as other governments - internal workflow regulation to ensure data security as well as the Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) - slowing the introduction of digital inspections systems. However, there have been a number of encouraging cases: The FDA’s eggpad pilot for egg-processing facilities that should inform other agencies’ efforts; The US Army Corps of Engineers is now conducting tablet inspections of levees; Amtrak’s inspection system for its Acela line, as well as others. Especially in light of the sequester, innovative funding mechanisms may become increasingly important to finance start-up costs and thereby capture long-term savings.

Most importantly, digital inspections can potentially help rework approaches to better fulfill the goals of regulatory mandates, rather than merely meeting preexisting and possibly misguided metrics. While market-research firms have found the sheer adoption rate of tablets into public-sector’s IT is in step with that of the private sector, so far it seems the encouraging cases of using tablets to change the mechanisms of regulation and inspections themselves remain isolated within the private sector. For example, Starbucks now uses a tablet-based and social inspection protocol for all of its stores, accelerating communication between inspectors in the field with each other and with managers in centralized officers. Such a dynamic allows inspectors to react more quickly to changes and introduces flexibility into the inspection process. The process’s goal is more oriented towards quick remediation of a particular store’s needs rather than penalizing its managers.

One could imagine such a shift within the public sector. Inspectors would be given a mandate to help instantaneously connect business and citizens with the resources needed to meet the goals of the regulating body, rather than to penalize those who have violated rules due to ignorance or a lack of resources the same way as those who have done so willfully and flagrantly. Accountability could come not through increasingly strict quantitative measures that may work at cross-odds with themselves and other regulating bodies’ goals, but rather by long-term tracking of inspectors’ success of obtaining compliance. Especially when we look at business regulation, the goal of inspections should be facilitating economic development while assuaging health, safety, and consumer concerns, not taking a punitive approach that ultimately can damper development and present considerable hurdles for newer, smaller businesses. While this change requires a change in mindset and a shift in culture, ultimately digitizing inspections and switching to mobile tablets can provide the procedural workflow to make this reality possible, all while reducing overhead and unnecessary travel and paperwork time costs so inspectors can attend to the real goals of their departments.


About the Author

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal

Benjamin Weinryb Grohsgal is a joint MPP/MUP candidate at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.