Even with the best-intentioned legislation, public policy initiatives can stall without the proper tools to enable easy and efficient compliance.
After seeing a 300 percent increase in requests for solar permits over five years, San Diego County extended its online building permitting solution to include solar permits, decreasing processing time by 75 percent. (Getty Images)
This is a guest post by Tim Woodbury.
Municipal laws and codes have been forged over decades and are currently facing challenges keeping up with emerging and rapidly expanding regulatory issues, such as solar/clean energy and the legalization of marijuana, and initiatives like the White House’s Startup in a Day challenge. Even with the best-intentioned legislation, public policy initiatives can stall without the proper tools to enable easy and efficient compliance.
So how do governments balance the additional workload required to address these emerging issues with limited staff resources? How can cities keep up with the demands and expectations of their citizens?
Fortunately, civic technology, which provides targeted solutions for governments to solve real problems, is experiencing exponential growth, reaching not just urban cities, but also suburbs, farm towns and remote resort villages. In fact, it is growing 14 times faster than traditional technology, and its growth is ushering in an ecosystem of civic innovation — from app developers to service providers — committed to delivering productivity and engagement solutions to capitalize on the immense opportunities, as well as address considerations, that may impact new policy outcomes.
Where to Begin: Gathering Data and Using It
Some of the biggest knocks against allocating resources for data collection is that data can be difficult to collect, challenging to analyze and rarely leveraged. However, the value of collected and viewed data is significant. This past year, a coalition of civic technology companies, governments and other stakeholders rallied around an effort to create a shared data specification for building and construction permit data, called BLDS (pronounced “Builds”). Ultimately, the new standard will be implemented in cities across the country, provide powerful insights into the fabric of communities and serve as a proxy for an area’s overall economic activity and development — just imagine the impact and possibilities of making decisions based on that kind of data!
Open Data for Results
While collecting data by itself can provide insights that help drive informed decisions, the power of open data can even help drive regulatory compliance. Many cities are now sharing building permitting and inspection data with real estate marketplace Zillow, which was part of the coalition that created BLDS. In addition to previous sales data and tax records, potential homeowners and even inquisitive neighbors can see an official record of building permit activity in the area. This can encourage homeowners to obtain the proper permits for any renovations to ensure nothing goes on their “permanent record” and it’s easier to sell their home in the future.
Another instance of using open data to help drive compliance is with health inspection scores. Roughly one in six Americans is hit with a foodborne illness each year. Evanston, Ill., and other cities now use open data to share restaurant health inspection scores and the associated details with Yelp, which consumers already use. Making this information easy to find can help drive purchase decisions, which in turn can motivate restaurant owners to achieve compliance with food preparation and safety regulations.
The Technology of Economic Development
Small businesses create two out of every three new jobs, and employ just over half of the country’s private sector workforce. Last year, the White House’s Startup in a Day initiative challenged cities across the country to reduce the new business licensing and permitting process to less than a day. I think it’s safe to say that local governments want to get new businesses up and running as quickly as possible, along with the associated revenue that entails, but are encumbered by existing processes to ensure compliance.
Fortunately, modern permitting and licensing technology exists that makes it easy to process business applications, engages citizens and spurs economic development. The City of Palo Alto, Calif., for example, uses technology to intelligently route applicants through the registration process in seven screens or less. As we’ve seen, making it easier to open a business in your community attracts entrepreneurs and innovation, which fosters job and investment growth — clearly something we’d all like to see happen in our own towns versus the ones next door.
Moving Toward Sustainability with Solar Permitting
The Paris climate conference this past December moved the conversation about global warming and renewable energy to the world stage, with all 195 countries agreeing to a global action plan. A little closer to home, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative “seeks to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade,” which is now true in 14 states. My organization is proud to be part of the Northern and Central California SunShot Alliance along with PG&E, SolarCity, Qado Energy and a growing list of cities including Livermore, Berkeley and San Francisco. The goal of the initiative is to enable the construction and interconnection of rooftop solar systems in seven days or less, an unprecedented goal given the industry’s current average of 30 days.
We’ve already seen San Diego County get in front of exploding residential solar growth. After seeing a 300 percent increase in requests for solar permits over five years, the County extended its online building permitting solution to include solar permits, decreasing processing time by 75 percent. It’s a win for government staff, homeowners, solar companies and the environment.
These are just a few examples of how technology can help governments achieve desired policy outcomes as they tackle the uncharted regulatory issues of the modern economy. In a world where people already use Yelp, Uber and Amazon, they have come to demand the same level of service from their government. Civic tech serves as a bridge between public policy and enabling and enforcing compliance, in a way that citizens already understand and expect.
About the author: As director of government relations for Accela, Tim Woodbury helps governments leverage technology to deliver better services and improve citizen engagement. Mr. Woodbury works with government, associations and community leaders to translate policy priorities into real-world results.