Counter Operations

Dear Management Doctor:

I have enjoyed your webinars because of the great solutions they have offered.

Our City will have substantial staffing reductions in about three weeks. We are already contemplating reducing our counter hours. At this point, I am asking if you know any cities that have implemented counter operations that employ individuals who are “cross-trained” to handle more than just one department/division functions (simple routine stuff)?

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel if I can look to others who have implemented successful solutions.

Artashes "Art" Bashmakian

Dear Art,

We have always thought that joint intake and counter is a good idea but many communities resist. However, given the economy and staff cut-backs, many are now using it. A number of our current or more recent contracts are good examples including: Maricopa, Arizona; Markham, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta; and McKinney, Texas. I am certain our emailers will add to this list.

I assume we are talking about Building, Engineering, and Planning applications. Although we have seen a few that also include Fire. Some cross-training will be necessary along with good forms, checklists, and handouts. Then for complex intake, it is useful to have other technical staff available as back-up.

Let me know how it goes,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

In addition to the Management Doctor’s responses, a few other things to consider if you are redesigning customer service at the permit counter.  First and foremost is thinking about service from the customer’s perspective.  Would they prefer a centralized permitting center or decentralized?  Likely the former, but if you don’t know ask them.  If you are going to survey your customers take the time to get deeper than “are we providing good customer service”.  A question like, “how can we help your business” will likely be more responsive to the information you are looking for.  For a longer term improvement project you might want to consider pulling together a customer advisory committee that can serve as a touch stone during the project.

Any change in a multi-department environment will be difficult at best.  Strong executive sponsorship and some form of decision/governance structure will likely be needed for a successful project.

Changing to a consolidated permit center will have benefits beyond customer service and possible staff savings.  Specifically centralizing this part of the development services operation will be very helpful as you begin to look at expanding into online permitting services.  In other words it is unlikely that one would stand up separate permitting portals for each department within a city.  A centralized permitting counter will likely make an online permitting implementation easier than implementing for a decentralized structure.

The City of Bellevue, WA has had a centralized permitting center since the late 1980’s.  The permit technicians handle intake for all development review functions including land use, building, fire, transportation, utilities and parks.  As the Management Doctor suggested, counter staff are backed up by technical staff.  The permit technician work demanding and it takes longer to train staff so good pre-employment screening and testing is quite important.

John Backman

We have implemented a cross-training type system with our Permit Counter after significant cuts 3 years ago. Planners are scheduled on a rotating basis to fill in where permanent counter staff was let go.

Cross training has been very difficult as the Planners still have a significant workload away from the Permit Counter and there isn't a lot of time for focused learning, practice, etc. to really get good at it.

Constant tweaking has helped shore up the effort. Just keep in mind that in our case, cross-training has wrecked some havoc on our other projects and actually made us less efficient over the years.

Best of luck.

Benjamin A. Kimball

Because our planning-only office operates with only three individuals, we have staggered work hours so that one person comes in 1 hour earlier in the morning (and leaves one hour earlier in the afternoon). Lunch hours are also staggered. We have actually managed to stay open an extra 10 hours a week this way (7 am-5pm, M-F) which is how we convinced the City Manager and Council to let the one person come and go earlier.

Gregory L. Scoville

In answer to the question above. I have identified the advantages and the disadvantages of our migration to a joint permit center in 2011 with our responses in bold:


  1. One-stop shopping approach (consolidates all permitting + transaction in one area rather than 4 separate areas).
  2. Fewer support staff needed due to cross training (one less Permit Tech person needed after consolidation).
  3. Provides a stronger justification for increased capital investment in a new development permitting system that is user friendly (aligning the JPC space with the HTE automated development permit system amplifies the system inherent flaws in meeting current and future expectations).
  4. Better access to management staff (more opportunity for management staff to be present).
  5. Quicker detection/solution of problem trends (quicker to observe and realize problems).
  6. Internal communications enhanced (people communicate better due to location proximity).
  7. Considered a more value added approach to the user (facilitative versus a regulatory response).
  8. Aligns well with the concepts of shared services (doing more with less).
  9. A clearer understanding of support demands across different functional areas of responsibility between parties responsible for development decisions (I now understand why you need it now).
  10. Clear leadership and a coherent mission (What we do or will do is it mission essential or mission creep).
  11. Less equipment/less management (eliminated multiple printers/copiers and promoted a flatter management organization).
  12. You can have it cheaper, better & faster (not just two of the three with the third being negative).
  13. JPC environment is subtly designed to reduce counter conflict and tension with customers (provides sit down @ counter rather than standing; non-governmental colors, etc.).

Disadvantages include:

  1. The assumption that the customer will receive impersonal service (consolidation = big & faceless).
  2. Support staff not familiar with cross functional responsibilities of other departments or divisions permitting requirements and policies (not my job).
  3. Perceived unresponsiveness (consolidation = big and unaccountable).
  4. Requires significant expenditures thus a strong business case is needed (cost: benefit).
  5. Difficult to implement given the existing organizational culture (This is the way we have always done it).

In designing the JPC, the City addressed:

Disadvantage #1 and #3 by building on the City’s strong customer service history of being courteous and responsive in addressing the customer’s needs by positively motivating staff to always: be pro-active in anticipating problems and identifying solutions to meet customer’s needs; recognize government as a service profession that cannot ignore the frustrations, expectations in the marketplace; value relationship building; encourage customer ideas; and facilitate rather than regulate as a problem solving method but never sacrifice the public interest when making a decision.

Disadvantage #2 was addressed by providing training to building, planning and engineering permit staff across functional areas of responsibility as it relates to permitting, operating policies and cash transaction requirements. This is on-going and is considered a continuous improvement objective.

Disadvantage #5 involves organizational awareness that innovation or change is needed and it is good. Embracing change is not a government worker forte. As a solution, the joint permit center was designed to work much like what occurs in the military. Several people in same job specialty assigned to different organizations relocate to a different work location. The Permit Manager has day-to-day operational control of the joint permit center and is empowered to resolve issues at the center while evaluations are coordinated between the Permit Manager and supervisor of the organization where the employee is permanently assigned. We have been in operation for one year and our Customer Services Cards overwhelmingly like the service.

Richard "Ric" P. Goss