Permit Centers

Dear Management Doctor:

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.


Dear Overwhelmed,

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Size Matters—The size of the community and volume of permit activity will have a big impact on the design of the center.
  4. Intake, Advice and Review Integration—There are several models on how to handle intake and advice and review. Each has its pros and cons.
    • 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, Oregon.
    • 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 feel.
  7. 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 calls.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 fees.

The Management Doctor

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