Creating an Electronic City Hall

FOSTER CITY, Calif., June 7, 1999 — A Silicon Valley-area architect for the past 27 years, Zane Paxton, AIA, has repeatedly completed the lengthy process of obtaining building permits for his clients’ projects.
“It’s a real pain to drive the five rolls of signed drawings across town, haul them in, stand in line and fill out all the application forms,”
he said.
“It’s quite time consuming, and more often than not you also end up with a parking ticket.”

This fall, all that will begin to change. Rather than driving to city hall to obtain building permits, contractors and homeowners will be able to save time and avoid traffic by applying for some of their basic permits over the Internet.
“It promises to be a much faster process,”
Paxton said.
“As an architect, it will be a competitive advantage because providing a faster ‘time to market’ is a major focus of Silicon Valley clients. It will be available 24 x 7, and it’s more environmentally sound, something I can feel good about. It’s also very gratifying to see cities really improve the way they conduct business internally as well as with their customers. It’s a real win-win.”

With $100,000 in consulting services provided by the Northern California Microsoft Consulting Services organization and Carta Inc. to design the site, the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View are developing
“e-permit”
Web sites that will allow contractors and homeowners to streamline the often lengthy permit process by using their computers to purchase many building permits. Several of the other 28 government jurisdictions in Silicon Valley are expected to follow suit once the first two Web sites go live in October.

Officials say the e-permit Web sites in Sunnyvale and Mountain View will be among the first in the nation that enable people to apply for, receive and pay for a building permit automatically without making a trip to city hall.
“We’re the first that I know of,”
said Leland Vandiver, Sunnyvale’s Manager of Data Systems and Networking.
“Other cities have Web sites, but they aren’t truly interactive.”

Officials in Silicon Valley see the e-permit system as just the start. The long-term goal is to build an
“electronic city hall,”
in which city businesses and residents can conduct much of their government business using the Internet.
“People are becoming more and more comfortable with the Internet, so I think there’s big potential here,”
said Ron Geary, Mountain View’s Deputy Community Development Director for Building and Safety.
“This is opening the door to other opportunities for cities to use this technology.”

Initially, the e-permit systems in Sunnyvale and Mountain View will apply solely to simple permits–such as those required to install roofs, water heaters and bathrooms–that don’t entail submitting a blueprint. These permits comprise more than half of all the building permits customers purchase from most cities. Eventually, Sunnyvale and Mountain View both hope to expand their e-permit systems to include more complex building permits that require blueprints and in-depth plan reviews–such as those required for new buildings and large renovations.

In most cities today, contractors and homeowners applying for simple building permits must travel to city hall, fill out some forms and stand in several lines to process and pay for their permits. They then have to stand in yet another line to schedule an inspection required to ensure the work they do complies with city building code regulations.
“You have to leave your house, come down here, park, get out of the car, come to the counter–you’re talking easily an hour out of somebody’s time,”
Geary said.

The e-permit system will simplify this process by allowing contractors and homeowners to obtain these permits in a matter of minutes, any time of day or night, wherever they have access to a computer. They simply log onto the Internet, fill out the required forms provided on the Mountain View and Sunnyvale Web sites, and enter their credit card information to pay for their permits on the spot. With just a few clicks of the mouse, they can then schedule a date and time for the inspection, and print out both their permit and the receipt on their printer.

“Certainly there will be a tremendous convenience in being able to apply for and obtain these permits over the Web,”
said Randy Tsuda, a project director at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, the Silicon Valley public-private consortium spearheading the e-permit program.
“You’re not confined to the 8 to 5 timeframe in which city hall is open. You can do this at night, you can do it early in the morning, you can do it from your office, your home, wherever.”

In addition to speeding up the permit process, officials consider the e-permit system environmentally friendly because it will reduce paper consumption as well as the number of cars on the road.
“Mountain View and Sunnyvale both issue about 5,000 simple permits each year, so if you could capture 10 or 15 percent of that volume, you’re talking roughly 500 permits,”
Geary said.
“That’s 500 trips to city hall. That’s 500 hours of less congestion on the freeways. That’s how we’re looking at it.”

By making the building permit system more convenient, city officials also hope to encourage more people to take the legal route and apply for permits rather than illegally updating commercial buildings and homes without them.
“Obviously, we issue the permits for the safety of everybody,”
Vandiver said.
“If you install your water heater badly, you could blow your house up. We’d like to see our community safe and secure, so anything we can do to increase the number of permits that are legally required anyway helps everybody.”

The e-permit project grew out of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley’s Smart Permit program, a larger effort designed to use technology developed in the region to speed up the building-permit process. Joint Venture, a non-profit organization in Silicon Valley formed to boost the region’s economic vitality, began working on the program about four years ago, Tsuda said. Over the past few years, the organization has worked with Silicon Valley cities to agree on a uniform application for building permits, standardize the building code by greatly reducing the number of local amendments they attach, and establish regional specifications for tracking permits online.

Initially, Joint Venture began working on a system that would enable customers to apply for the more complex permits online and cities to conduct plan checks electronically. It later also decided to tackle an online system for simple permits–both because the technology hurdles were easier to cross and because simple permits account for the bulk of permits obtained from cities.

“We realized that by developing a system to handle simple permits, we could actually address 50 percent of the clients that come in and interact with the building department,”
Tsuda said.
“So from a volume standpoint, it made a lot of sense.”

Both Sunnyvale and Mountain View agreed to participate in the project, and Joint Venture approached Microsoft to see if the company would provide the technological expertise for the site.
“Our interest in this is that it is a program that is using technology to streamline processes,”
said Charles Earnest, media and community liaison for Microsoft’s Northern California District.
“It’s a great example of the kind of digital nervous system Microsoft talks about because it demonstrates how technology can make processes instantaneous and reliable. It’s the beginning of many different processes that are going to change.”

Microsoft is contributing $100,000 in consulting fees to develop the architecture for the e-permit system, and Microsoft e-commerce partner Carta, Inc. of Sacramento, Calif., is working with engineers from Sunnyvale to develop the sites. The Web sites will be built on the Windows NT platform using Microsoft Site Server E-Commerce Edition and SQL Server database software.

Once the e-permit Web sites are up and running, officials hope to convince large home-improvement retail stores in the area to establish in-store kiosks that allow customers to purchase the necessary permits as they shop.
“If you’re at Home Depot, for instance, and you’d like to install a new circuit box in your house, you could purchase all the things you need and, as you’re leaving, go to the Internet kiosk to purchase the permit required and schedule an inspection appointment, and you’re out the door,”
Earnest said.

Officials also plan to expand the system to other types of city transactions such as applying for building permits that require blueprints and plan checks, signing up for parks and recreation classes and applying for business licenses.
“The potential is huge,”
Vandiver said.
“We want to create an electronic city hall.”

Officials say the e-permit system is just the beginning. With time, they predict, things like applying for building permits will become commonplace transactions on the Internet.
“I have no doubt that in a few years you’re going to see an e-permit system in most cities across the country,”
Tsuda said.
“If you look at the types of transactions people can do over the Web in terms of shopping, obtaining information and doing research, it’s only logical that government will provide those same kinds of services over the Internet for its customers. I think this is a technology you will see spread rapidly.”

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