The Importance of Communication in Code Enforcement

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Providing high-quality service depends on a commitment to consistency and enhanced communication.  The basic process shared by most regulatory industries are incident response, inspection, and follow-up/enforcement activity. Effective code compliance and enforcement depends on how well these systems work together to produce an amenable outcome for all interested parties and communicating that outcome. Many code enforcement operations focus on compliance, with enforcement as a tool, but sometimes, statutory procedures, administrative processes, weak or non-existing codes, or simply misinterpretation presents a host of challenges; this fact must be communicated.

In order to create a climate where successful communication can take place, those in leadership must themselves possess a clear understanding of the goals, strategies, and services of the municipality and code operation, and be willing to take the necessary steps to achieve these goals. If the code enforcement operation makes internal communications a priority, there will more likely be motivated officers who are inspired to help the community reach its objectives, resolve conflicts quickly and improve resident relations. Credibility is an important area to focus on when it comes to influencing effective communication between officers and residents. When executed correctly, communication with residents reinforces trustworthiness, but if there is a deep communication gap, it can ultimately undermine productivity and engagement. The general public expectation is that it is possible that a quick and positive response to all requests for assistance from various public institutions should always be forthcoming. To bridge the gap, communication by code enforcement staff must be ongoing using all modern methods.

Consolidating Inspection, Compliance, and Regulatory Enforcement Services

While minimal resources are often made available to provide code compliance services, demands for service have increased. Many communities have not invested in appropriate technologies that would facilitate a more efficient approach to code service delivery. The need for enhanced enforcement has also increased the burden on Code Compliance Officers to report and follow-up on a variety of ancillary issues that are traditionally handled by other service or functional areas.  Exacerbating the problem of how to deal effectively and efficiently with these additional service demands are increased resident needs for “specialized” services.

Many communities follow the traditional approach to providing code compliance services, which gives limited authority to Officers, places restrictions on the specific issues each functional area can address and creates costly and duplicative processes (i.e. vehicles; data management; travel time; etc.).  A more efficient approach allows for greater enforcement flexibility by concentrating the management, oversight, and responsibilities of performing a diverse number of inspections, enforcement and compliance tasks in a single division. Often compliance staff is often unable to address or resolve certain field-related issues without the need for referral to another functional area of the municipality.  For example, if a Code Compliance Officer visits a restaurant to follow-up on a complaint about illegal signage, and he or she notices that the business does not have a business license or a Fats, Oils, and Grease Certificate, he or she would traditionally have to contact a different work unit to send a separate inspector to verify non-compliance and issue a violations notice when/if appropriate. 

This fragmented approach to Code Compliance and Enforcement is highly inefficient, as these redundancies cost the municipality in higher resource utilization and decreased service delivery.  This approach also delays response times, has a negative effect on public expectations, and diminishes the municipality’s capacity to promptly remediate existing problems.  As your community continues to seek cost-saving opportunities, the idea of consolidating inspection, compliance, and regulatory enforcement services should be considered a strategic priority.

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Standard Operating Procedures for Code Enforcement

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Successful businesses and organizations have standard operating procedures and other systems in place. Traditionally, every employee working for an organization has a set of rules to follow as they complete tasks. They may also have instructions that show them exactly how to complete each task. While it may not be considered standard procedures, there is in fact a system of processes and policies that govern code enforcement operations (not to mention state and local law), but well-written standard operating procedures provide direction, improve communication, reduce training time, and improve work consistency.

Standard operating procedures used in combination with planned training and regular performance feedback lead to an effective and motivated workforce. Most administrators would agree that we all benefit from consistent work performance and predictable results, and officers and support staff benefit from increased confidence and a clear sense of achievement. In order to effectively delegate tasks to others it’s important to have these systems in place including training, record keeping, responding to concerns and follow through on complaints.  

A successful code compliance program needs committed officers and other support staff who complete work procedures consistently and accurately. It also requires all involved to contribute their experience, knowledge, and ideas to constant improvement for the future. Most people naturally want to do a good job, and successful managers recognize this fact and seek to channel workers’ efforts in ways that will benefit the community.

Generally, when county staff first field citizen complaints about the hazards of vacant or non-compliant properties, they often respond by exercising their code enforcement authorities. Proper use of discretion is probably the most important measure of a code enforcement officer or department. Best practices in the regulatory field suggest that a code officer would never be efficient if that officer strictly enforced every violation observed to the “letter of the law.” Furthermore, that officer probably wouldn’t have time to effectively manage their respective workload and respond timely to all calls for service. Few things involved with human behavior are black or white. The best officers operate in the gray areas of human existence. The gray area is where citizens need the code officers to operate with confidence and good judgment so that the residents can be educated and comply with the codes and ordinances. From personal experience, there are some people who require enforcement activities to comply, and others that deserve warnings, with a little lecture on compliance.  

While this system is far from perfect, it works. Just like our government, there are checks and balances in the system. Code officers enforce the laws based on general directions given to them by their administration, the prosecutor’s office and the courts but backed by local, state and federal law. All these entities represent the citizens who elect and fund the system.

The Public Policy of Privatizing Code Enforcement

The concept of privatization of code enforcement has emerged as a potential alternative model to the traditional form of municipal service across the country.  Inarguably a more efficient and cost-effective way to operate government, privatization is the process of allowing the private sector to perform functions of traditional civil service-based government. Privatization is designed to offer a seamless way by which any level of government can provide enhanced service to the general population. By harnessing resources normally associated with the private sector, public entities derive the benefit of having access to a host of professionals, new technology and progressive processes and methodologies not normally associated with public service.  In this model, contracts are awarded in a process of open competitive bidding, which allows private bidders to compete for the ability to assume government functions, responsibilities and activities at a cost-effective price. In other words, governments are not strapped with the overhead, staffing and equipment costs (to name a few) that are normally associated with providing traditional public services.

One stakeholder group that is affected by new privatization policies is the political leadership in a community whose responsibility it is to act in the best interest of the community. Their fundamental job is to support the citizenry, yet their ethical perspective is often challenged in matters of privatization because it essentially counters the concept of public service. The citizenry, as a stakeholder group, has a “right” to efficient and effective public services, and to ensure that elected officials are cohesive in the efforts when implementing change to these services.

Frankly, the largest issue that has the greatest effect on the use of privatization to provide code enforcement services, is the desire of the elected body. Despite the greatest efforts of the constituencies, if there is a concerted effort to maintain status quo, unfortunately, the status quo remains. Today, global communities exist within a complex and competitive environment. Since municipalities throughout the nation aspire to cut costs while maintaining a manageable level of service, each organization is tasked with ensuring that the social responsibilities of this new public policy embraces a broad range of residents with a myriad of cultural and practical needs.

The True Value of Regulatory Enforcement

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The next generation of municipal leaders have the responsibility of charting the course for our communities with a vision that includes code enforcement services as an equal partner in the effective management of the quality of life of a community.The time for municipalities to recognize code enforcement as the driver of change in a community is upon us; but the question is, do towns, cities and counties truly value code enforcement?  Progressive communities throughout the nation understand the benefit of a strong code enforcement operation.