From the Mayor of Boston: How to Streamline Permitting and Licensing for Small Businesses

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This is a guest post by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Boston-HubHacks-2014The first HubHacks Challenge was held to design a better online permitting process for the city of Boston. (Photo: Dave Levy)

Since my first day in office, I have committed to making sure that small businesses throughout Boston have all of the tools they need to succeed, contribute to the city’s economy, and provide good jobs for residents. Keeping this promise has meant rehauling the cities’ permitting and licensing system. If an entrepreneur is working to get a business open, he or she should be able to focus on business plans, and not have to travel from one city department to another, getting tangled in red tape.

I challenged my team to evaluate and improve the city’s permitting experience with a special focus on improving the process for small businesses. We have improved our  customer service and guidance tools for small businesses throughout the permitting process. Since we knew that fixing this system wasn’t going to happen overnight, we made sure that our current customers had a place to go for help. Here are a few things we did:

  • Enhance customer service at the Inspectional Services Department. We restructured our call center to use a top-of-the-line software to assist in constituent interaction tracking. We also instituted a greeter program for an improved customer experience.
  • Expand and promote the small business referral program in partnership with our Department of Neighborhood Development. We provide business development specialists who can walk constituents through each step, taking their business ideas and launching them into action, with a heavy focus on permitting and licensing.
  • Install kiosks with upgraded customer service software at small business touchpoints citywide. By placing kiosks at various offices and locations, we connect constituents within two business days to resources and technical assistance.
  • Host a Hackathon where developers, designers, city employees, and other interested residents worked together to attempt to solve a series of challenges for those seeking permit applications. As a result of the Hackathon, two tools were created. In December, we released Permit-Finder which allows individuals to track the status of their permits throughout the approval process. The other is an improved address search feature within our current online permitting portal, which allows applicants to find their address in an easy, modern way, on a map, and connect that address with their permit application.
  • Design and deploy a modern system that meets Boston’s high standards for innovation and usability, by joining a partnership with Accela. We will work together to build a comprehensive online permitting system.
  • Streamline the appeals process for small businesses in response to the long wait times, and other inconveniences for relatively minor zoning variances needed to open a small business, we lengthened Zoning Board of Appeals hearings from half days to full days. We created a streamlined process for small businesses, whose appeals are now heard by a subcommittee which has shorter hearings, shorter wait times, and works outside of business hours.

Finally, we have some regulatory changes in the works. We have announced zoning changes, which will make low-impact uses (such as art galleries or bakeries) allowed across all business districts. We also have plans to reform entertainment licensing policies to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses.

My work here is not close to done, and I am the first to acknowledge that we still have a ways to go. Every single day, we are working to ensure that  processes are not getting in the way of entrepreneurs who give so much to our city. Bostonians should expect to see changes that will make permitting and licensing easier for small business owners.

Mayor Walsh Head Shot PhotoAbout the author:Mayor Martin J. Walsh, an accomplished advocate for working people and a proud product of the City of Boston, was sworn in as the City’s 54th Mayor on January 6, 2014. With a commitment to community, equality and opportunity for every resident and neighborhood, Mayor Walsh is putting all his experience, skills, and passion to work in moving Boston forward. Mayor Walsh lives on Tuttle Street in Savin Hill and is a graduate of Boston College. He shares his life with his longtime Partner, Lorrie Higgins, and her daughter, Lauren.

1 comments on “From the Mayor of Boston: How to Streamline Permitting and Licensing for Small Businesses”

  1. From my OpEd as it appeared in the Arizona Capitol Times on February 27th. For a full copy of the report from which these recommendations are drawn, it’s in the ICMA Knowledge Network.

    Transforming the economy of Arizona

    By: Guest Opinion February 27, 2015 , 6:42 am

    The governor’s State of the State Address and the newly released report, Velocity: A Blueprint for Transforming Greater Phoenix into an Innovation Economy, focus on economic development for the state and the region. I’ve read both with a great deal of interest. In hopes of putting some meat on the recommendations in those documents, I would suggest the following to state/local leaders:

    1.) Launch a local version of “Shark Tank.” Aspiring entrepreneurs like myself hang on every word from that show. Nothing beats having to defend your business before a set of highly critical, but helpful, experts who have “been there, done that.” At the same time, the Shark Tank model gives entrepreneurs a chance to pitch to an audience of real potential customers (who often are smarter than the Sharks about what will make for a successful business.) Start one in the Arizona and I’m certain the response will be swift and substantial.

    2.) Offer business assistance when entrepreneurs have time to use it, i.e., at nights and on weekends. Many potential entrepreneurs or new business owners are working full-time during regular business hours. Technical assistance, therefore, should be offered from at least 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Make certain that an appropriate blend of in-person, online, and telephone assistance is offered. Ensure that individuals with expertise in copyright, patent, and trademark issues are available too, especially to help rural business owners/entrepreneurs who may be hundreds of miles away from a copyright, patent, or trademark expert.

    3.) Develop a comprehensive online state and local government business licensing, permitting, and registration system. Check out Silver Flume, the “one stop shop” for state and local government business licensing, permitting, and designed by the Nevada Secretary of State, https://www.nvsilverflume.gov/home. That system, and a similar one in Washington state (http://www.bls.dor.wa.gov/citycounty.aspx) are enabling business owners to complete an increasing number of their state and local government transactions from one account. More than 60 Washington cities, for example, use the state’s system for their business licensing. Other jurisdictions who don’t soon take a similar cost-efficient, effective one-stop shop approach to business licensing, permitting, and registrations will suffer for it.

    4.) Integrate the application process for business grant programs into the aforementioned system. The state of New York recently created a Consolidated Funding Application for 21 business grant programs, not only easing the paperwork burden for businesses but for the state as well. If hundreds of colleges in the U.S. could agree to develop the universal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, certain state and locals could do the same for government business grant programs.

    5.) Redesign (i.e., automate) state and local governments’ approach to the Requests for Proposals (RFP) process. Having been a proposal writer for several companies, I can assure you that 50 percent of the information requested in an RFP is asked over and over again. To wring a tremendous amount of costly duplication out of the procurement system, integrate it with the aforementioned business licensing, permitting, and registration system. When a company wants to respond to an RFP, basic background information regarding debarments, financial condition and management could be drawn from the centralized database. The system could also feature up-to-date information on current/completed contracts. Vendors would just need to check that the information in their profile was current. The RFP, therefore, could focus on the unique elements of that procurement (e.g, product and service descriptions, project plan, and pricing).

    6.) Provide copyright, patent, and trademark protection. The roll-out of my continuity planning business (focusing on individuals, small businesses, and volunteer managed non-profits) has stalled because I realized that once I start distributing my exhaustive set of guidebooks, I wouldn’t have the resources to enforce my copyright. Put the legal clout of government behind start-ups (at least initially) on copyright, patent, and trademark issues and the chances of success for many enterprises like mine may increase measurably.

    As a former legislative budget director, I know some skeptics are going to say, “This is nice. But we can’t afford to do these things right now.” My response would be, “You can’t afford not to.”

    – Sharon Lawrence is a public policy/government marketing consultant and lobbyist in Austin, Texas, who is considering relocating to Arizona.

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