Permitted to Succeed? Part Two

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In response to Mayor Menino’s pledge to create a “one-stop shop” for permitting, we’ll be examining what factors need to be addressed in order to spur job creation in Boston. On Day One, we looked at the leadership issues that would need to be resolved. Day Two – changing an organizational culture of highly personalized, uneven customer service – is harder.

To make the permitting process easier for entrepreneurs, the culture of the bureaucracy that’s involved has to change from a process orientation to results. That means viewing business owners as customers, not obstacles.

Talk to people trying to start businesses in Boston and you quickly hear about uneven experiences with the staff at the Inspectional Services Division at 1010 Mass Ave. It sounds like a lottery. Get the wrong person at the window, and you hear anecdotes about surly, resentful staff. And there are lots of variations – the staffer you speak with could be the same person to deny hearing from you three weeks later. Or the one who, after several contacts over a series of weeks, suddenly finds a deficiency in your application and demands you resubmit it. But there’s a silver lining in many cases, stories abound of dedicated, conscientious staffers and inspectors who guide applicants through the process, directing you to speak with specific individuals or even interceding on your behalf.

Each extreme highlights one of the main problems – the intensively personal nature of the permitting process in Boston. Permits and zoning decisions should be objective, based on the application of facts against the applicable code or regulation. It’s nothing of the sort here: Instead, entrepreneurs are waylaid by unhelpful staff but, in many cases, saved by good Samaritans in the same office. It all depends who is helping you that day.

If we want small business owners to thrive (and highly mobile serial entrepreneurs to come here in the first place), we need to provide a permitting process that treats them as customers, not impediments. And a process that rewards compliance with objective, easy-to-comprehend regulations, not a lottery dependent on who happens to be working the window that day.

Crossposted at Boston Daily.