DEM Looks to DMV for Customer-Service Tips

But is this ongoing business-friendly makeover good for the environment?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — At the December meeting of the Economic Development Corporation, now called the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, Gov. Lincoln Chafee recounted hearing that DEM, as in the Department of Environmental Management, stands for “Don’t Expect Much.”

To fix its image as a bureaucratic morass, the DEM launched a customer-service makeover in 2013. Driving the push for efficiency is an embrace of private-sector management practices and the legislative "Moving the Needle" push to make state government business friendly.

In recent years, the state agency responsible for environmental enforcement and permits has endured annual budget cuts and staff reductions. According to an in-house review, DEM supervisors became bogged down in paperwork as administrative jobs were cut. In one department, it took up to six months to issue approval letters.

“So, we’re changing that culture,” Chafee said after hearing an update from DEM on its service makeover.

Chafee said DEM's focus on efficiency is being modeled on a successful upgrade of customer service at the Division of Motor Vehicles. This approach was given a strong push by Rhode Island Commerce Corporation board member Karl Wadensten, who champions his success with the Lean manufacturing program used at his Rhode Island-based industrial tool manufacturer, VIBCO Vibrators.

Through employee input, Lean seeks to improve workplace efficiency so that more time is freed up to work on “higher-value” projects — for example, ones that DEM said are directly linked to environmental protection.

But does the focus on speed and efficiency threaten environmental protections? “It’s exactly the opposite,” said Terrence Gray, DEM’s associate director for environmental protection. “It’s not just about doing things faster.”

Rather than spending hours on time-consuming tasks such as data entry, supervisors have more time to focus on their expertise. “We’re trying to advance our environmental protection,” Gray said. 

DEM is one of some 30 state environmental agencies across the country to receive Lean training. The Rhode Island Foundation provided a $47,000 grant to DEM for the $59,000 project.

After the first of three years applying Lean management techniques, DEM said service, at least, is getting better. Applicants seeking forms or approvals from DEM are referred to as “customers.” A new Permit Application Center is planned for the DEM lobby at its main office on Promenade Street, with hopes of cutting application approval to 60 days. This new service center also will send confirmation notices to applicants within 24 hours, likely through e-mail, a process that previously took months.

So far, two customers — a car dealership in Pawtucket and a retail center in Woonsocket — seeking to operate on brownfield sites received approval letters in about 60 days. The permitting process within DEM's Office of Waste Management was the first of several programs to receive yearlong Lean training. Lean practices also are being used to speed up approval for development in and around wetlands, as well as permits and other documents related to air pollution emissions.

DEM will next launch the Lean program for its Bureau of Natural Resources and marine fisheries program. Other state agencies such as the Department of Administration will launch the Lean program later this year.

DEM Director Janet Coit said the project will have long-term benefits. “It will probably have more impact than any one environmental initiative,” she said during the recent presentation to the renamed EDC.

Rhode Island Commerce Corporation board member Stanley Weiss said the new customer-focused changes have already helped with one of his real-estate projects. “We couldn’t have gotten better service," he said.