Interviews with Joy Rich, Deputy County Manager, Maricopa County, AZ and Alan Stephenson, Acting Pla
As local governments continue to re-envision the roles and design of various departments and service delivery, opportunities to consolidate and collaborate inevitably emerge. With this rationale, in February of 2014, Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix partnered to co-locate and open a permitting counter on the second floor of Phoenix City Hall. The purpose was to create a “one-stop-shop” for those seeking various permits across a wide spectrum (e.g. food establishments, water/wastewater, dust, burn, etc.) from the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department (MCESD) and Maricopa County Air Quality Department (MCAQD), as well as the City of Phoenix. Often when opening a new business, remodeling an existing structure or demolishing a building, permits are required from both City and County entities to complete the task within regulations. Prior to the consolidation, those seeking permits were forced to travel between multiple sites, creating confusion as to which permit was needed from which location. Ultimately, the collaboration between Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix streamlines the permitting process and removes the inconvenience of traveling to various locations multiple times and reducing the confusion around which entity provides which permit. But it also has the added benefit of promoting collaboration, consolidation, and partnership between Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix.
To better understand the process and results from the co-location, the Alliance for Innovation sat down with Ms. Joy Rich, Maricopa County Deputy Manager, and Mr. Alan Stephenson, City of Phoenix Acting Planning and Development Director. The two organizations had long sought ways to work together and better serve their citizens, but identifying actionable opportunities proved quite challenging. However, according to Ms. Rich, there was a “big appetite, as Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix really wanted to do business together.” The idea to co- locate the facilities started with the elected officials through conversations between City of Phoenix Councilmembers Bill Gates and Tom Simplot and Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Chucri. Their shared vision allowed the process to be “organic” and evolve after significant discussions with staff members regarding existing business practices and future space needs for each group.
After initially identifying the potential for a new consolidated permitting service, City and County management assessed various possibilities of what the collaboration could look like through feasibility studies, analyzing available space for the operation, the costs involved in providing the service, and expense justification. Instead of hiring new employees to staff the counter, the County could facilitate the transfer of existing employees to the co-location. As Ms. Rich said, “Essentially staff was then taken from another location and were cross-trained to do this function.” She emphasized that County employees staffing the counter aren’t expected to be experts in all of the nuances associated with each permit as their technology provides a strong connection to the central office for support. “Technology has allowed staff at a central location to take control of the permitting software and talk to the customer via a Skype-like interface,” explained Ms. Rich. This option promotes greater utilization of in-house knowledge without requiring personnel holding advanced technical expertise in each aspect of the permitting functions to be physically present.
After identifying the opportunity to co-locate and conducting the feasibility studies, Mr. Stephenson said the actual implementation process moved quite quickly. “Once we narrowed the scope down, we got it done in three and a half to four months,” he said. Little overhead and minimal transitional challenges arose as technology significantly aided in the process. An additional aid was the crossover in personnel between Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix. Ms. Rich mentioned that she and County Manager Tom Manos had past experience working for the City of Phoenix, which assisted in understanding the internal operations of both organizations.
For other communities seeking to streamline permitting, Ms. Rich and Mr. Stephenson both indicated that co-locations are replicable under the right conditions. “As long as you have the volume of a larger jurisdiction [it is viable]. Some smaller communities have approached us [inquiring] if we could do this at their facility; the problem is whether it justifies having a staff person there,” Ms. Rich explained. In a situation where the necessary volume may lack the need to co-locate, Ms. Rich provided a quick story on the building of a kiosk for County recording functions in the newly- constructed City of Goodyear Library. “The kiosk works on a Skype interface and the back office staff is down here [at the centralized Maricopa County office]. We believe there is capacity on that system to do something similar.” Both Ms. Rich and Mr. Stephenson agreed on the potential challenges other communities could face, saying that it is necessary to break down parochialism, territorial or jurisdictional power-grabbing, and any negative preconceived notions about cooperation and collaboration. Lastly, Ms. Rich emphasized the importance of the elected officials’ attitudes, “The elected officials didn’t want to get credit; it was more giving credit back and forth.”
Both Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix shared the overarching goal of enhancing the customer experience. “You have to remember who the customer is and why we do what we do,” reminded Ms. Rich. Mr. Stephenson added, “It’ll save people, at minimum, trips around to different buildings to get permits for one project. They’ll be able to get plan review if they are building something in the City of Phoenix, get a building permit for it, and if they trigger any County requirements they can also get their reviews and permits for it as well.” Instead of businesses and citizens, many of whom have their first meaningful interaction with the City and County while obtaining permits, having a frustrating experience, being forced to travel between multiple locations, and often not knowing what is needed next; their experience is quick and painless. This type of interaction can leave a tremendously positive first impression of local government. Ms. Rich and Mr. Stephenson relayed that the feedback has validated these sentiments by being singularly positive. Ms. Rich described the feedback as “just positive. [Customers are] happy to not have to get into one of our other locations.” Mr. Stephenson has personally observed the greatest benefits for small to medium-sized developers and everyday citizens, who may not necessarily realize the need to obtain permits from multiple jurisdictions. In Ms. Rich’s words, it’s not conducive of a resident and business-friendly environment for first-contact with local government to be, “Welcome, let’s do business in Maricopa County and here is your notice of violation.”
Beyond enhancing the experience of residents and business of Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix, the co-location promises to be a financially viable and sustainable venture as well. At the time of the interviews, one hundred and forty-three customers had been served at the Maricopa County Services’ Counter generating $39,437.05 in total revenue, which represents roughly half of the estimated one- time expenses and annual operating costs ($76, 884.00). The Maricopa County Air Quality Department accounted for nine transactions producing $26,037.05, while the Maricopa County Environmental Services Departments accounted for ninety-two transactions producing $13,400 in revenue. Based on these figures, Ms. Rich said, “We really are not upside down or going to be upside down by any stretch of the imagination.”
Having early success with the collaborative permitting co-location, the City and County are focused on identifying future opportunities to partner going forward. Ms. Rich and Mr. Stephenson gave specific examples of GIS mapping, computer support staff, recorder, assessor, and City and County planning and development permitting functions as potential areas of further collaboration. In the spirit of reinforcing a culture of customer service, collaboration, cooperation, consolidation, and partnerships, Ms. Rich went as far to say, “If the time presents itself where we need to do construction of office space, I have no doubt we’ll be talking to each other.” Less dramatically, as buildings are typically constructed to allow for expected growth, vacant space could be backfilled with both City and County staff to advance opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. Additionally, the co-location was simply labeled “Maricopa County Services” to ease in any further expansions of jointly-provided services.
The streamlining effort observed by co-locating the permitting process represents a great first step in a sustained partnership between the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County, which will instill a positive image of local government among the business community and residents alike. Re- envisioning departments and service delivery methods, in this case, eases the transaction process between government and clients in the obtainment of permits and promotes the viewpoint that government is here to help, not hinder.