There’s no need to walk through the glass doors of Palo Alto’s Development Center to know why the city upgraded its construction permit and inspection process. Just ask the applicants about the infuriating two-to-three-hour wait and the costly parking ticket fines that typically went along with the laborious process.
These drudgeries confronted the center’s customers — construction developers and architects — who often lost hundreds of dollars during lengthy communication exchanges with city departments. The situation had become an insufferable headache, nearly unsupportable, and clearly unsustainable for a fast-growing municipality like Palo Alto — now at 61,000-plus residents.
The center’s Development Services Director Peter Pirnejad saw the impact at both ends. Customers were annoyed and the center’s staff were pressed thin. The daily routine exasperated employees and customers alike as they confronted the paper shuffling activity attached to the transactions of construction, its required checkmarks and regulations.
"When you have 4,500 permits issued in one year, and each permit can generate a magnitude of calls and emails, the flood of information and requests about updates can often be overwhelming and sometimes it is,” Pirnejad said.
With the heavy intake of permit applications — and coordinating roughly 24,000 inspections each year — the center acts as the middle-man between applicants and approvals needed from five intercity departments. Approved permits manifest themselves onto plan checks and various construction stages of a project (this translates to plan reviews, permitting, inspections, and every new and improved structure deemed permit worthy).
Located in Silcon Valley, Palo Alto has been the launch pad for such tech giants as Google, Apple and Facebook and is the home base for companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Skype and Tesla Motors. Considering its back history, Pirnejad knew the city should consider leveraging technology. The city already has a progressive tech policy and citizen survey’s indicated 50 percent of residents were open for an online remedy.
"Being a Gov 2.0 advocate, an open government advocate, I've applied those broad terms to a real specific target market which is permitting and development review,” Pirnejad said.
The center’s team assembled a number of innovative apps and technology providers. They included the IT firm Accela for its civic cloud platform and Civic Insight for real-time permit and inspection updates. Pirnejad highlighted the civic engagement app Textizen — soon to be released — that will allow passing traffic to send and receive feedback on construction and inspection sites. Altogether, the apps were able to eliminate the city’s service backlog and streamline the process.
Pirnejad also singled out Civic Insight, an app that has re-cast the center’s entire communication process, cutting the workflow between departments and applicants from weeks to real time. The app was built during a 2012 fellowship program hosted by the civic technology organization Code for America. Afterward, it was independently co-founded as a startup by a team that includes Eddie Tejeda, who doubles as the co-founder of Oakland, Calif.’s tech transparency organization OpenOakland.
“In the construction world [slow communications] could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. When a building is being constructed, literally money is being spent on an hourly basis [by developers and other applicants] until the project is done.” He said. “It's a very expensive proposition, so time is money.”
The city app functions with a repertoire of features that allow users on a desktop or mobile device to locate property permits by street address, create a watch list for status tracking and receive email alerts as soon as a critical point is reached.
“They were really able to revolutionize the way we communicate with our applicants, or for that matter, for anybody who's interested in what's going on with our construction projects,” Pirnejad said.
Since the launch of Civic Insight last February, the city of Palo Alto has seen more than 700 visitors sign up for the free service and expects that number to grow. Pirnejad equated the user number to 700 fewer phone calls or customers visiting for status updates.
Accela CEO Maury Blackman, who’s involved in an ongoing partnership with the city’s innovation plans, said he thought the game-changing strategy by Palo Alto stemmed from its willingness to embrace technology inspired by the tech community that engages citizens and builds stronger communities.
“Palo Alto has a citizen centric view on customer service. They understand by opening up and democratizing their data, businesses and citizens will have more faith in their government and be more engaged within the community,” Blackman said.
Palo Alto is on track to expand the variety of permit types online. Pirnejad said data analytics are expected to be added later to gain a peripheral vision of trends, innovative processes and predictive strategies.
“We expect over time for it to really make some drastic improvements,” he said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.