Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) – Innovating in online government services

July 8, 2018

Key wins:

  • We made the process of submitting land use applications crystal clear, including the restrictions and limitations on land use.
  • Our team streamlined the application process for legitimate applications, while limiting the number of applications from speculators.
  • We created a self-service model to reduce the amount of time ALC staff spend processing applications.
The Challenge The Provincial Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) is an independent administrative tribunal mandated with preserving agricultural land and encouraging farming in British Columbia. The Commission is the steward of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), some 4.7 million hectares of prime growing land set aside in British Columbia for agriculture. The ALC encourages farming and restricts non-agricultural uses, working with 150 local governments across BC to support collaborative planning. One of ALC’s key functions is working with landowners, developers, and other public and private agencies to review applications for removing land from the ALR, subdividing land or permitting non-farm land uses. But the quality of applications ranges from serious and well-planned to speculative and hasty. An additional challenge is that often landowners and developers are not entirely certain whether their land is in the ALR or not because they get contradictory or inaccurate information from other levels of government or outside parties, such as realtors. The small ALC team’s workload is heavy and getting heavier. Since its inception in 1973, the ALC has considered more than 45,000 land use applications. To help ALC staff better focus on the mission—and reduce the burden of paperwork and administrative tasks, especially related to the application process—ALC decided to take a more self-serve approach and move the paper-based application process online. But the Commission was also cautious that doing so would not make the process too easy. The same rigour and high-level of stewardship had to be present in the online process. The Solution To follow our thought process, first, consider any offline, paper-based government or semi-government process that dates back to the 70s. Chances are you can visualize the mountains of paperwork, the multi-coloured forms, the piles of files related to each individual application. Now add in approximately 150 regional and municipal governments. Each has its own unique way of doing things; some so small, there’s no planner, let alone a planning department; some with planning departments many times the size of the ALC. By looking at each user type and actual actions (not job titles), we found ways to streamline the process to nine steps and group these into three stages. We also focused on transparency/rigour and visibility/support. That meant “transparency” in letting the user know beforehand exactly what would be required and “rigour,” where we communicated that a person could not submit an application without all of the required information. We directed users to exactly what they needed and how to get it. (One of the critical insights we uncovered was that speculative applications were often incomplete, taking up ALC planners’ valuable time. This approach transferred the oenous to the applicant rather than the overburdened ALC staff. Our team also created a shared space for municipal and regional governments, so that everyone at a given municipal or regional government could access the same application information. (We did this because we learned that responding to ALR inquires was often a shared job.) Finally, we recommended a dashboard for ALC staff so that they could see who was working on what applications, the status and the basis of any decisions. After the portal launch, speculative applications declined, user satisfaction increased and ALC staff had to spend much less time fielding basic information calls, so they could focus more on managing BC’s precious agricultural land.