In 2016, the City of San Diego partnered with OpenCounter to streamline the process of starting a new business. The goal was to provide a tool that would educate entrepreneurs about the requirements and costs of their projects, and spare them from unnecessary trips to City Hall.
Erik Caldwell, the City’s Economic Development Director, recently shared the genesis of the project:
“My favorite pizza place in San Diego is called Lefty’s. I was sitting there in one of their two locations thinking about the challenges they faced opening up their second location in town. As a research project, I had staff pull every permit they had to get. That paper is still in my office and it is 1.5 inches thick. It took eight hours of discovery time just to gather that paperwork. Through the process I realized that we could provide better service for businesses looking to expand or start in San Diego.”
According to the Department of Economic Development, two things have come out of the implementation: the tool is proving to be more valuable for the City than just the customer experience, in that the information collected about people going through the process has been invaluable. Secondly, the tool has helped staff to be more proactive from a service delivery perspective. As Director Caldwell noted:
“The information we get about people going through the process has been invaluable. The backend analytics have been a benefit for us from a service delivery perspective, and it means we can be proactive in following up with users. We have two people on staff where this platform is a good portion of their workday. Any inquiries or applications that come into the system - we will reach out and provide help.”
Although there were concerns about automating the process–both in terms of accuracy of information and displacement of staff time–the tool has been embraced by Development Services staff, as it has proven to be highly accurate, and allows them to focus on big projects, instead of answering repetitive questions about zoning or permit fees.
Furthermore, by reducing the friction in the permitting process, the City hoped accelerate local job creation and maximize the impact of its economic development efforts. As Mayor Faulconer put it:
"Our collective job is to help make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and grow a business. When they do that, we're going to continue to see that revenue and quality job growth."