A Team Effort

A public/private partnership in Sunnyvale, Calif., results in a line of software designed to make e-government easier.

by News Staff / February 12, 2001
Citizens complain about governmental red tape and, perhaps, fail to realize governments dont like it much either. After all, who wants to deal with a resident or business owner who cant figure out which form to file where and when?

Luckily for citizens, governments like to share information with each other, so when one of them figures out a way to streamline services and handle voluminous-yet-necessary paperwork more efficiently, the others will get clued in on it sooner or later. If theyre lucky, theyll be able to put that system directly into place rather than having to develop a version of their own.

Such is the case with a relatively new line of software developed by the city of Sunnyvale, Calif. The centerpiece of the software is "e-Permits," a Web-enabled application that allows the public to apply for, pay for and obtain a number of building-related permits through the Internet. E-Permits has created quite a buzz among Sunnyvales neighbors and has already been named a "Top 25 Technology Solution" by Public Technology Inc. and a "Best Exhibitor Solution" by Government Technology.

Spreading the Word

The e-Permits software was the indirect result of
a public/private nonprofit venture in Silicon Valley. The "Joint Venture in Silicon Valley" was funded by governments, corporations and private nonprofit organizations and attempted to standardize the permit submission process in the dozens of cities involved so that home- owners, architects and contractors could negotiate the permit process with fewer headaches.

The ventures success spurred Sunnyvale and other participating municipalities to focus next on improving their handling of these redesigned permits. But whereas most cities chose to rely on an off-the-shelf product to rework their systems, Sunnyvale drew upon its vast technological riches and spent a couple of years developing software that was customized to its particular needs -- software that was more responsive and flexible than packaged applications. "Weve taken our system to the next level by including online permit application processing and [delivery]," said Robert LaSala, Sunnyvale city manager. "Developers are very pleased with it because it saves them time and money -- and in this area, time to market is everything."

Word of Sunnyvales success spread to neighboring cities. To find out how well the software would serve other jurisdictions, Sunnyvale installed its permit system in Mountain View, Calif., roughly a year ago. "I didnt feel that [programs then on the market] had a clear understanding of the building permit process," said Ron Geary, Mountain Views deputy community development director. "Sunnyvale was real hands on. They spent a long time analyzing what they wanted out of an e-permits system."

Praising the systems customizability and ease of use, Geary said it took him only four hours to train his employees. "A lot of systems arent that forgiving. [With] this thing, you move in and out of it and can change things on it very quickly... I think that Sunnyvale thought it through."

As a result of that trial run, Microsoft gave a grant to the two cities to develop the credit card payment aspect of the program. "Microsoft really put the driving force behind it and brought in a lot of money," said Geary.

Finding a Partner

LaSala said Sunnyvale knew it had a better mousetrap, one that would benefit any number of governments. But once those governments started approaching him en masse, he started looking for a business partner. "We arent in the business of marketing software," he said.

Thats when Berryman & Henigar, a San Diego-based municipal professional services firm, stepped into the picture. "We had been looking at the smart permit initiative for some time and watching Sunnyvale," said Scott Kvandal, president of Berryman & Henigar and CEO of GovPartner, Berryman & Henigars e-government affiliate firm. "The software package was developed by a city for a city, and that has a lot of attraction because [Sunnyvale] really developed it from the inside out."

The licensing deal, which the Sunnyvale City Council approved last September, gives Berryman & Henigar exclusive rights to the e-Permits software as well as to two other programs developed by Sunnyvale: "Parks and Recreation," which is an online class reservation system; and "SunGIS," which is a Microsoft SQL Server-based planning, building-safety and code-enforcement management system. "This is a win-win situation for the city and for local governments," said LaSala.

Besides paying royalties to Sunnyvale, Berryman & Henigar, which will deliver the software through GovPartner, will continue to develop and enhance the programs over its seven-year license period. "Well gain from any enhancements that are made [to the software] and, even though its not required, in all likelihood well participate with Berryman & Henigar in making these enhancements," LaSala said.

GovPartner also is responsible for providing system support to Sunnyvale, Mountain View and any other cities that sign up for part of the Sunnyvale software.

Kvandal said his firm already has spoken with a number of cities interested in e-Permits and will be able to provide the software either as a stand-alone item that the licensing city runs on its own servers or in a hosted environment managed by GovPartner. "That way all they need is a PC and an Internet connection," he said. "They wont need any servers or software, and well maintain the data servers and provide service 24/7."

Universal Application

Although GovPartner originally targeted its efforts at cities with populations between 20,000 and 200,000, Kvandal said a few larger cities and counties have asked for demonstrations of the software. Now he doesnt see any reason why e-Permits wont work for them as well. "Sunnyvale hadnt beta tested in the larger cities to
see how far they could stretch it, but weve certainly seen a bigger market for some of their products [than they imagined]," he said.

Kvandal added that GovPartners handiwork is transparent to users of the system. "A lot of our competitors have a different business model where they brand their products through a portal site," said Kvandal. "Thats not our goal. Our goal is to provide services to our clients in a seamless way in which you wont see our products branded on their Web sites. All youll see is a customized package that provides whatever outreach services that town or city wants."

LaSala said license fees received by the city will help fund other developmental activities within Sunnyvales IT department. "Well be exploring the feasibility of a comprehensive call center in Sunnyvale, and there are other systems were working on in local government service," he said. "Were always looking at new opportunities to maximize ease of doing business with the city."

Does this foretell more Sunnyvale software hitting the market? Possibly, but their style of innovation isnt likely to be copied by too many other cities. "[Developing original software] requires a lot of investment and interest on the citys part," said Kvandal. "Sunnyvale is a pretty leading-edge city technologically, and thats why
it was really attractive to us. I see more cities doing these private/public partnerships. Its a new way of delivering services to cities, and we think its the way of the future."