We are in the process of designing a new city hall. We are looking
for model permit centers that we can either visit or review designs
for. I was wondering if you had any suggestions for real good permit
centers? We see this as a great opportunity to re-vamp the way we do
business but the task is almost overwhelming.
I have lots of thoughts about your question. First of all, I'd like
to ask all of our readers to email me the location and description of
any great centers they have or have seen. I'll post them on our website.
We have worked with many different centers and designs. However, seldom
have we had the opportunity to work from scratch on a new city hall,
as such, each center tends to be unique in the context of local constraints.
Lets start with some basics.
- The Way You Do Business—The way you do business or want to
do business should normally be decided before you start to think about
designing a center. Exceptions are discussed under collocation below.
- Collocation—As many of the functions as possible that work
on permits should be located in the permit center. Although you should
decide the way you do business first, this is not always possible.
In some communities, changing the way you do business first may be
too threatening to staff. If this is the case I would at least push
for collocation. This in turn can lead to a second step of changing
the way you do business.
- Size Matters—The size of the community and volume of permit
activity will have a big impact on the design of the center.
- Intake, Advice and Review Integration—There are several models
on how to handle intake and advice and review. Each has its pros and
- Integrated Intake and Advice—One approach is to intake
all types of permits at one counter. If the volume of activity
is high there may be multiple counters but each one intakes all
types of permits. While this may seem to be the "one-stop" shop
everyone talks about, it still can have problems. In communities
with sophisticated or complex regulations, it is hard to train
the intake or counter personnel in all the nuances of various
processes. This is easier if the function is only intake but is
more complex if the function also includes giving advice. It is
ideal to have specialists available on call if additional help
and/or advise for the customer is needed. Additionally, we like
to complete as many permits as possible "over-the-counter," i.e.,
while the applicant is present. This generally means that the
person processing the permit must be a specialist. For some communities
we have found that it works well to have two counter functions.
One handles the building permits and related encroachment and
utility permits, the other handles the entitlements, i.e., normally
the planning permits. At times it could even be useful to have
some engineering intake but we prefer to combine this with the
building or planning permits if possible. The big problem we see
in some communities with this model is that the person you are
dealing with can't answer your questions. Examples of this model
include Irvine, California; San Diego, California; Redwood City,
California; Scottsdale, Arizona; Thousand Oaks, California; Eugene,
- Stations—Some communities design the permit center with
a series of stations. In this model there is one receptionist
function that determines which station the customer needs to visit
for sign offs. For example, these could be building, code enforcement,
engineering, environment, health, planning, stormwater, etc. The
advantage of this system is that the customer gets good technical
advice. However, at times, one station may contradict another.
Additionally, some customers feel that they may be getting the
runaround. Under this model, we like to give the customer an option.
They can go station to station or, they can leave us their plans
and we will take them to or route them to each station. Under
this model, the fewer the stations the better. Examples of this
include Sonoma County, California; Clackamas County, Oregon; San
Diego County, California.
- We Come To You—Another approach is to bring the specialists
to the customer. The customer is greeted by a receptionist who
does some preliminary screening and invites the customer to sit
down at a counter. One staff person then starts working with the
customer and then brings in other specialists as needed. This
works well in lower volume communities but does present some logistical
problems. It becomes more difficult in high volume operations.
Examples of this include Santa Clara, California.
- One Floor - Single Level—The ideal permit center is always
located on one floor. It is large enough so that all the specialty
staff that relate to the permits are located on the same floor and
accessible to be called for back up advice. Two floors always create
problems. Generally the shorter-range permit people are on one floor
and the longer range on another. The two floors create an unhealthy
divide. A high-rise building can be even worse. However, you always
do the best you can. Palo Alto, California had a substandard permit
counter and wanted a permit center but real estate costs are so high
that this wasn't practical. The solution was a small (but very nice)
permit center located across the street from city hall where many
of the backup staff continued to have offices.
- Stand-Up or Sit-Down Counters—We like to have some of both.
Stand-up counters are fine for quick drop offs or short questions.
Asking someone to sit down may actually be a turnoff. Think if you
were asked to sit-down at the bank just to cash a check. On the other
hand you need sit down counters for transactions that take some time
and to meet the law. We have seen a number of attractive sit-down
counters that are curved to give a more pleasant and less bureaucratic
- Take A Number—In low volume small communities the customer
expects almost instantaneous service. In high volume larger communities
we believe customers should be served in 10 or 15 minutes. There are
several ways to handle this. Customers can sign in and be called when
it is their turn. A "pick a number" and then be called is also another
approach. Some systems bring your name up on a printout screen. For
San Jose, California's new city hall, they are considering the use
of the vibrating piece of equipment that is being used by many restaurants.
In this system, you don't need to worry about missing your place in
line and can go about having a cup of coffee or making your phone
- Permit Center Manager—The permit center needs a manager,
either part time or full time. The manager should have process and
organization control but not all-content control. Some of the content
control remains with the trained specialist.
- Other Features—Other features may depend on the community
and the size of the permit center. We like: Triaging of permit lines.
If your transaction is five minutes, you don't stand in the 30-minute
line. A standard application form that should be used across all permit
types. An attractive and easy-to-use location of handouts, forms and
general information. A self-help area with computer terminals, phones,
and a copy machine. Ready access to refreshments, magazines, play
things for the kids. Bulletin boards and/or reader boards to post
changes in fees, requirements, deadlines, etc. A single point to pay