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

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.