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.
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
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.
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:
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