City of Edmonton – Putting Flexibility into Workflow

Edmonton is Canada’s fifth largest metropolitan region with a population of 850,000. In 1993, the City’s Auditor-General was severely critical of the Planning and Development Department. It cited the department’s lack of modern management processes and systems as the cause of inefficiency and poor staff operations. In response, City Council ordered a total review and reengineering of the department’s business processes, and the development of a new system to support them. Without significant progress in a year, the entire department would be outsourced.

Larry Benowski, Manager of the Development Compliance Branch, explained that at that time, all the processes in the department were set up for the convenience of the staff who worked there, not the customer. “There was no accountability for anything”, he remarked. For example, routine planning permissions took two months to process. It was impossible to trace a permit request once it had been made. Someone looking for a permit’s status might be passed around to twelve different people. Field inspections were made on paper and kept in individual inspectors’ desks, making it difficult to monitor inspectors’ work or the overall process.


Developing the vision for this project was especially difficult since so much had to be done in such a short time period. Further complicating matters, the department was reengineering its entire operations and didn’t know what it wanted.

But the City had two things going for it. Both Director of Information Services, Joni Mines, and her users believed that information technology could help the department solve its problem. And the team was willing to adopt an experimental approach to both reengineering and system development.

“This project had to be more than an IT success. Unless it was also a business success, and solved business problems, it would be a failure,” said Mines. “All ideas were acceptable. We knew we had to try things out and that mistakes would be made.”

Undaunted by the extremely tight time frame, Mines and her team undertook the task of developing and implementing an information system that would substantially improve the department’s overall workflow, productivity and accountability.

The system development project began in traditional fashion. But after a data modelling session in which it took two hours to define the term ‘basement’, the team realized that it had to take another approach if it was going to meet its schedule. As well, with the business processes rapidly changing, it would be impossible to structure automated processes that would successfully anticipate the department’s work flow. Thus, the team decided to design a system that would let users adjust both data and workflows to meet changing business needs.

One of the most important reasons why the project worked was that neither IS nor business people felt they were only working on a computer system. Instead, everyone focused on ensuring that customer needs were met. One notable feature of the collaboration was the inclusion of several external customers on the project’s Steering Committee. Joint responsibility for the project’s success was reinforced by co-locating all team members together in a large project area.

Senior management emphasized the importance of the work being done by dropping in on the team regularly and helping to rapidly resolve any problems or roadblocks that arose. This was a vital role, according to Mines, because it created momentum behind the project and fostered a team culture of doing whatever was necessary to meet the deadlines.


The solution that the project team implemented, the POSSE (Planning One-Stop Service) System, is designed as a series of templates. A senior user defines the workflow, data fields and data dependencies. These are then used by the system to generate appropriate database fields and processing. As a result, the system is very forgiving. If a user wants to make a change or add a new data field, it can be added without expensive maintenance. In fact, Mines noted that almost all of the original work flows have now changed. This approach has significantly reduced maintenance and freed up the development team to expand and enhance the system.

POSSE Release 1 was successfully implemented on time and on budget. Two further releases have increased the number of functions performed from 40 to 300 types of work. Today, POSSE is used for a wide range of functions, including:

One-stop permit issuing.

Inspection scheduling and dispatch using an intuitive geographical interface.

Remote information exchange from the field.

Property management.

Fire prevention and inspection.

The system replaces a variety of manual processes and over ten outdated systems. It is easily used by non-technical staff and virtually eliminates office data entry and paper forms.

POSSE has resulted in a number of tangible business benefits. By enabling inspectors to spend 40 percent more time in the field and eliminating wasted inspections, the inspection staff has been reduced by 50 percent. Permits can often be issued within hours and office staff has been reduced by 25 percent. Mailing labels, which used to take a full day to prepare, can now be created in five minutes. Customer satisfaction has increased dramatically.

However, even more important, according to Benowski, are the intangible benefits. There has been a significant increase in staff morale and a new pride has developed in providing high quality customer service. The culture of the department has changed from being very protective of its interests to being very innovative and open to new ways of doing things.


One characteristic which all excellent applications seem to share is that they are able to provide more value than originally intended. This was certainly true of POSSE. Because it was designed to be generic, this system was rapidly adopted by other departments at the City. Originally designed for 100 users and one department, today it is used by 550 users and multiple departments for a wide range of functions. John Mills, the CIO for the City of Edmonton, remarked, “POSSE was developed as a solution for a departmental need but it is now recognized throughout the City as useful for many business needs.”

Some departments have also found POSSE useful as a reengineering tool because it helps them define and refine processes, data and workflows as often as they want. Giving this functionality back to the users from IS has enabled users to become their own change agents.

In addition, City staff soon realized that other cities and companies might find it useful too, and so it is being marketed across North America by a marketing partner. POSSE is now being used by Saskatoon, Calgary, and Honolulu. Many other cities are investigating it and are expected to adopt it shortly.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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