Boston permitting process upgrade shows results, study says

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BOSTON – An effort to modernize and improve permit processing in City Hall has already cut some key times by more than half and has paved the way for more improvement, according to a study released Monday.

The research shows that processing a “long form” building permit fell to 22 days from an average of 42 days, according to the report from the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Planning and zoning reviews fell to 12 days from an average of 32.

The dramatic improvements resulted from an effort to reform “a poorly functioning system of permit application and processing that was anecdotally acknowledged to be a hindrance to development of property and businesses,” wrote Steve Poftak, the institute’s executive director, in the report. To put it simply, he added, “the city’s permitting process has been criticized for years.”

While the average processing time for long-form permits was 42 days, 10 percent took more than 85 days to approve or deny, according to the report, which cited an analysis by the McKinsey consulting firm. Short-form permits averaged eight days, but for 10 percent of applications, it took over three weeks. Planning and zoning reviews were taking almost five weeks.

Part of the problem stemmed from a less-than successful technology upgrade in 2009, which was supposed to automate much of the processing of applications, cutting the amount of paperwork needed and making it easier for the public to see what was happening to an application, the report said.

“While the system did streamline some portions of the process, it (did) not deliver the anticipated technology gains and the implementation process had a number of challenges,” Poftak wrote. As a result, workers in the city’s Inspectional Services Department became distrustful of the system and apprehensive about further technology upgrades.

After initial reviews and a “hackathon” in which programmers, city workers and others dove into the data and processing needs to experiment with new ways to work, the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, or DoIT, implemented the Permit Finder system, a hackathon idea that allows the public to see where a permit is in the process. Also, an off-the-shelf program was added to create Zoning Check, which lets the public find out the zoning status of a given property.

The developments bolstered confidence among department workers that additional upgrades could work, Poftak wrote. It also provided a way to improve performance monitoring within the department, he said.

Poftak attributes the success of the effort, which he says has laid the groundwork for more gains, to the collaborative approach taken by DoIT leaders and administrators, a high tolerance for failure as new techniques were developed, and less rigid procurement methods.