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San Francisco Launches One-Stop Cannabis Application Portal

The city-county used CityBase software to retool an entire application process in a way that’s designed around the user experience and aims to be a template for digital services going forward.

recreational marijuana
As more and more states legalize cannabis, local governments are finding themselves with a need to adapt their business permitting processes to complex and evolving regulatory laws. By working with the Chicago-based digital services company CityBase on a new online permitting portal, the joint city-county government of San Francisco wants to ensure the burden of figuring it out doesn’t fall to residents.

According to permit analyst Alexandra Sandoval of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis, when recreational cannabis became legal in California a year ago, the city had been using online forms built in Salesforce to handle incoming permit applications for medical cannabis sales. She said the city-county has fielded 377 applications for 558 cannabis business permits since the launch of its first online permit system in May 2018, allowing for more than one permit per application.

San Francisco’s Chief Digital Services Officer Carrie Bishop said the old system couldn’t deliver everything they needed, given the complex legislation and scale of demand, so her office turned to CityBase, which handles the city’s tax collection and payment services, for help building a new system.

Using CityBase’s Screendoor document creator, Bishop said, the city designed and built a new online system that doesn’t require applicants to check in with multiple departments, because software acts as the go-between instead.

“The solution that CityBase gave us … meant that we could deploy these forms that we were asking people to fill in much more quickly and smoothly,” she said. “The point of all of that work is to make things more seamless for residents. … They don’t have to tell us the same information multiple times. They don’t have to bounce between all the different departments. It’s not on them to navigate all those different structures.”

Permitting software isn’t exactly open territory in the govtech space, being dominated by Accela, Tyler Technologies and others, but CityBase Chief Product Officer Josh Goldstein argued that what distinguishes CityBase’s offerings is how they work with case management software and allow applicants to navigate an entire process with one unique identifier.

Bishop said the new system launched last summer, but according to a news release this week, she’s going to present the results and best practices of the permitting solution at a Cannabis Compliance West event Jan. 23 in Los Angeles.

Also attending the conference will be Goldstein, who told Government Technology he hopes San Francisco’s new permitting system can be a proof-of-concept for other governments facing similar challenges. He said the project gave CityBase some insight into what other cities and counties might need, and it shows how the company can help local governments distill complex processes into a seamless, unified experience instead of a fragmented one.

“When [San Francisco] Cannabis and Digital Services came to us, they said, ‘Look, this is one of the hardest permitting use cases we have, so if your software can nail this, we’re confident it can work more broadly.’ I think it’s an important point that we didn’t do anything custom. They used the product as it exists,” he said. “Our collective hope is that this becomes a model in California where there really was no precedent for how this [permitting at the retail level] is expressed.”

Bishop said this is just the start of a larger effort by the city-county of San Francisco to improve city services by focusing on the user experience — on how easy it is for people to navigate applications and other processes from beginning to end. Next, they’ll look at permits for accessory-dwelling units.

“This is a kind of prototype for a much bigger piece of work my team is working on, around making all the permits digital, and that means thinking about them from end to end,” she said. “It’s an easier way for people to interact with us.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.
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