Permitting Passage on the Online Express

In one city, you can apply to improve the comfort of your own home from the comfort of your own home.

/ May 31, 1999
Homeowners in Milpitas, Calif., who've been putting off home repairs because they dread the obligatory trip to City Hall for a building permit need not travel any farther than their home computer. In January, the city unveiled its Online Express Permitting program, making building permits just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away.

Armed with the tools of electronic commerce, a PC and a credit card, residents of the Silicon Valley community of 40,000 can submit a building permit application via the city's Web site. For most small projects, applicants receive e-mail notification of permit approval within one business day.

Once online, permit applicants are walked through the process by a series of data-entry pages, each calling for specific information. Users enter the project type, location, property owner, credit card information and e-mail address. An "application assistant" in the right column of each page gives applicants a graphical view of where they are in the application process.

Residents can obtain online permits for more than a dozen simple home projects, such as installing an air conditioner, replacing a roof or adding electrical outlets. Permit fees are calculated at the time of issuance and sent to the applicant in a confirmation e-mail, but applicants can get a feel for their fees by viewing an online permit fee schedule. Once approved by the building department, fees for a permit are billed to the applicant's Visa or Mastercard.

A key component of the site is a declarations page on which applicants acknowledge, by clicking a box, statutes and local codes that apply to their work and agree to comply with all city and county ordinances and state laws relating to building construction.

Building Better Service

The move toward an online permit process is part of the city's larger goal of increasing service levels by emulating tactics used by private sector businesses.

"We're trying to do in government what the banks have done with ATMs: provide alternatives and options for automated service," said Rod Massey, technology manager with the Milpitas Information Services Division. "We really envision that government, along with the private sector, needs to move toward new models for service delivery."

An online residential building-permit program was seen as the most logical service to test that approach, Massey said, because it would give residents the direct benefit of filing applications 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And just as banks have retained tellers to provide personalized service for nonroutine transactions, Massey said, Milpitas will continue to provide the personal touch to applicants seeking permits on more complicated projects.

The cost to implement the program has been minimal, said Milpitas CIO Liza Lowrey. The city used interns to do the initial development of the site's pages using Cold Fusion, a popular electronic commerce Web development application by Allaire Corp. A city staff member then finalized the pages for uploading onto a separate server hosting the online permit service. The whole development process took two weeks of staff time, Massey said.

"This first step was very low cost, but it's not really giving us great cost savings, either," Lowrey admitted. "The real purpose is that we now have another means for the citizens to access government on their own time, instead of having to come to City Hall between the hours of 8 and 5."

Response has been positive, with the number of online applications nearly doubling in the first few months of operation. Since January, about 30 percent of all applications received by the city's building department have been filed online.

City officials expect that number to increase as the program is expanded to accommodate more complex projects. Until digital signatures become common in electronic commerce, building permits for work done by paid employees or hired contractors must be obtained through the traditional paper process. For now, applicants must download the form from the city's Web site and file a signed hardcopy, either by fax or mail, with the building department.

"That's part of the challenge for us," Massey said. "How do we fully automate the process while, at the same time, ensure that we meet our legal compliance?"

Joint Venture

Milpitas' foray into online permitting is part of a larger, coordinated initiative to bring true smart-permitting to Silicon Valley. The city and five neighboring communities, under the banner Joint Venture Silicon Valley, are pooling their technology resources with private-sector expertise to streamline the area's building-permit process. Each city has taken a leadership role in a particular application.

While Milpitas is the first city in the group to implement online applications for residential permits, its regional partners are simultaneously developing accompanying components. The city of San Carlos, for example, has added permit tracking to its Web site, allowing applicants to monitor the status of applications filed at City Hall as they wind through the approval process.

As early as mid-summer, Milpitas building officials, collaborating with the city of Santa Clara, hope to migrate to an all-digital process, from initial permit application through plan review and permit issuance. The goal is paperless communication between city building officials and private-sector architects and planners. A digital "red-lining" process would allow building departments, review comments to be quickly distributed.

Massey said future plans also include expanding the online service to include other city transactions, including business license applications.