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Bringing Permitting into the 21st Century

How Phoenix Modernized Their Permitting System for the Digital Age


In July 2015, the Planning & Development Department (PDD) enhanced online services to include real‐time permitting.

The City of Phoenix strives to improve service and increase ease‐of‐use for their customers. As more people begin to look online for customer service, ways to complete projects and find information, the City decided to create a more robust permitting system online. The city website recently underwent a redesign, and it was a perfect time to expand the online offerings for customers.

In the past, permitting typically required visiting City Hall, located in downtown Phoenix where parking can be difficult and wait times can be frustrating. By enhancing the online permitting system, customers now have the opportunity to work at their own location, on their own schedule. Because the system is self‐service and real‐time, customers can apply for a permit at any time and have their inspection scheduled the following day, regardless of City Hall hours of operation. This saves time for customers and staff, who no longer have to process as many applications. In fact, direct staff cost savings have been estimated at $45,000 annually, based on an average of 30 minutes of staff time for 3,000 permits each year.

The savings for customers are much greater. Because the system is also mobile‐friendly, on‐the‐go customers have access anywhere. Customers can save more than an hour for each permit, plus fuel and drive time. Even customers who do not use the online program can benefit from the shorter wait lines at City Hall.

The online permitting, payment, and inspections aligns with recent efforts to streamline city services, reduce wait times and facilitate private development. Not only do these new permitting capabilities require less staff interaction, they also encompass a wide‐variety of permitting types for both residential and commercial work that is eligible for an over‐the‐counter permit with code compliance verified by the city inspector. By providing this service, the City of Phoenix goes above and beyond what is expected of the typical governmental agency.

Getting to Work

Government work is often done within departmental silos, with each team completing set tasks. This project brought together individuals from many different disciplines, teams and departments to create a robust solution. The original idea was conceived within the plan review and inspection teams, who then worked with information technology, inspection supervisors, counter staff, communications representatives, payments & submittal staff, and the fire protection team. Planning & Development (PDD) staff from multiple workgroups assisted with research and development, testing, training, implementation and providing information on current and previous permitting processes. The partnership between PDD Information Services and the central Information Technology web team was instrumental in upgrading technology, programming significant functionality changes, improving usability and reliability. PDD’s technology staff and central IT staff conducted numerous brainstorming and design sessions to streamline and improve online service offerings. While the site was undergoing development and testing, research was completed to identify companies that would most benefit from online permits. Based off of this research, select companies were invited to participate in testing the website while Inspections staff continued to provide valuable input to improve functionality and test for red flags. Several companies were very enthusiastic to assist and provide feedback. A multi‐disciplinary team also conducted testing and provided feedback. This feedback proved invaluable and resulted in additional efficiencies as well as improvements.

The companies that have provided feedback continue to be invested in the site and offer up suggestions for improvements and increasing the current online offerings. By reaching out to industry partners and including them in the development of the site they have been empowered and those that assisted are continuously among the highest users. Many fire protection companies and electrical contractors now regularly obtain the majority of their permits online.

Overcoming Obstacles

Determining which permits would be eligible for online issuance and developing standard permit descriptions was the most significant obstacle. Different permits were analyzed and collaboration among plan review and inspections was paramount. Phoenix had to select permits that could be issued without plan review and describe them in such a way that online users could understand any limitations.

Another obstacle was ensuring that the appropriate permit is selected online and appropriate fees are charged. This was overcome by developing a table-driven approach for permit-specific information including required data by permit, descriptions/instructions, validation criteria, and fee specific information for a consistent customer experience. This approach also facilitates adding future permits.

Other obstacles included how to track historic properties, which require additional approvals, linking permits to a valid address and creating a system that monitored incoming permit requests for issues that would prevent a permit from being issued (outstanding violations, invalid address, etc.). Additional logic was added to ensure applicants understand the development requirements for historic properties.

Real Impact

As a result of the improvement to their permitting system, services increased between 25 and 63 percent. In a comparison of online service activity for the same six-month period prior to and after the change (July – December 2014 vs. 2015), there were measurable results. Below is a summary by each service type:

Online Service

Count 2014

JulyDec (Before)

Count 2015

JulyDec (After)

% Increase

Permits

756

1,231

63%

Electronic Plan Submission

405

507

25%

Payments

758

1,259

66%

Inspections scheduled

13,394

19,310

44%

When customers acquire services online, it saves time and money and reduces in‐person wait time. With continued outreach and increasing customer awareness, city staff estimate 3,000 trips to City Hall will be reduced. Staff estimate that customers save easily more than one hour, including travel time, parking, waiting in line, and over‐the‐counter service. City staff also save 30 minutes per transaction and are able to assist other customers, who can then experience shorter wait times. This has also allowed the department to address increased workload due to the improving economy without requiring additional paid staff.

A Model to Envy

Although other jurisdictions and cities have online permitting capabilities, the City said they have yet to find any as comprehensive as the City of Phoenix’s system. And while the programming itself cannot be replicated, because it is directly tied to multiple in‐house systems, the concept of online permitting and types of permits available can be replicated by other jurisdictions who are willing to put in the same amount of effort to create a seamless service. An online search reveals that although other cities and counties across the nation have online permitting capabilities, they are often limited or vary greatly on the definition of “online.” Some cities only allow monitoring progress of permits online; some permit applications can be completed online, but then must be emailed to staff for review and approval. It is the robust system and the variety and quantity of permits offered in real-time online that help Phoenix’s system to serve as a model for other communities.

Learn more about the online services at www.phoenix.gov/pdd/onlineservices.

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