Boston's New Permitting System Focuses on the Front End

Midway through a licensing and permitting system overhaul, Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge explains why the city is focusing on the user.

by Colin Wood / November 4, 2015
The city of Boston, rendered above, has made an update to its permits and licensing platform as part of an effort to empower citizens, not infuriate them. Flickr/Bahman Farzad

Boston is trying to change government's reputation with the people.

On Nov. 2, Mayor Martin Walsh announced the city's latest update to its permits and licensing platform — an update that adds new functionality like allowing users to apply for multiple permits simultaneously; build a team of project partners, homeowners and contractors needed to advance the process more quickly; view detailed information about an application's status; and view projects geographically. This update and the ones that came earlier this year are part of an effort to empower citizens, not infuriate them, said CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

"The goal is that if you have a dream, if you have a vision for building and investing in Boston, that this becomes a tool that helps you realize that, rather than an obstacle that you have to get through," he said. "The goal of this was to help streamline that process to help all of those people with tools that make it easy to do business with the city and frankly, our goal is to make it as easy to do business with the city of Boston as it is to do business with the best private companies online."

The city has made incremental improvements to the system over the last year and will continue to add functionality in the coming 12 months, Franklin-Hodge said. The city plans to add a guided tour for those unfamiliar with the permitting process and continue adding permits to the online system until every permit and license can be obtained online. The people of Boston have spoken, he said, and they're saying that applying for permits is difficult.

"It's a drag on growth," said Franklin-Hodge. "When people spend time wading through a complex bureaucracy instead of focusing on building the city, it means things are more expensive to build, housing takes longer to come into service. Small businesses that maybe don't have a lot of resources to apply to this are less likely to make investments in the city or to expand or to open up a new location. Even homeowners, putting a porch on your house can quickly turn from an exciting project to this kind of bureaucratic nightmare."

To make the upgrade happen, the city is doing things a little differently than usual. Typically, Franklin-Hodge said, a city will purchase an enterprise permitting and licensing system complete with a front end and a back end.

Boston, however, is taking a route that will result in a much better user experience, he said.

"The Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) actually added an API to our enterprise permitting system that allowed us to replace the front-end user experience. This API opened the door for us to build an amazing customer interface without having to replace the whole back-end permitting and licensing system," he explained. "We can take an iterative approach to developing that front end that allows us to go through cycles of user feedback, that allows us to understand what we got right and what we got wrong, and to adjust along the way."

This type of model is seldom seen in government, he said, and the result is often clunky software that undershoots expectations of both government and the public alike.

Partners on the Boston Permits and Licenses project include OpenCounter and Accela, first announced in December of 2014. The upgrades first began in August 2014 at HubHacks, a civic hackathon led by DoIT and the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

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