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The southern California city of El Cajon moved to paperless permitting in just under a month, a project that had originally been expected to take a year.
At the beginning of March, the city of El Cajon, California, moved applications and processing for a handful of business permits to an online customer self-service system. The rest—a total of 50 different types of permits—would come online within a year.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“New housing was considered essential for us, so a lot of our projects did not stop,” said Sara Diaz, the city’s IT director. “We haven’t stopped building, and we considered that important for our city in terms of keeping our economy up and running, which was given highest priority. Due to those concerns, we were able to get all of our permits online by the end of March.”
Throughout the pandemic, cities and counties across the country have been forced to pivot quickly to virtual services, implementing in days or weeks what would normally take months or years. In El Cajon, a city of about 100,000 people just east of San Diego, speeding up the switch to online permitting—a system used by multiple departments, including public works, building, planning and housing—was possible mostly because officials had chosen months earlier not to tackle the project in the usual way.
“In general, for government large-system implementations, there’s a lot of talking, going in circles, handing stuff off to consultants to set up, and then they don’t do it the way you thought or the reality is a little different than the theoretical,” Diaz said. “These things usually take a couple of years. We didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, a group of about seven people from different city departments spent three weeks training with representatives from Tyler Technologies, the software company that developed the customer-service system. Staff members learned how to configure the system themselves rather than relying on outside consultants, which allowed the city to try different options in-house before rolling them out to the public.
“We’d defer to Tyler’s resources for the hard things, or to ask how someone else had done a particular thing,” Diaz said. “But really, we built this ourselves from the ground up.”
To quickly debut new facets of the system to the public, city officials also had to let go of the long-standing belief that a new product or service couldn’t go live until every single hiccup had been tested and solved. By configuring the system themselves, staffers quickly learned that they could address problems as they popped up—and that residents could be part of that process. Between March 1 and June 30, the city processed $386,000 in permit and plan fees online.
“It’s this whole idea that a citizen can’t see it until it’s perfect. We were always so worried about that,” Diaz said. “And I don’t think it’s going to hold water anymore, and that’s a game-changer for how governments think. We’re more open to taking that feedback in, and people are recognizing it, and it’s enabling us to do more.”
In the course of the pandemic, the city also launched an app to keep residents updated on new alerts and health guidelines, as well as business reopenings and city services, including requests to fill in potholes. It also provides access to virtual recreation programs and live-streamed council meetings. That project was originally slated for the new fiscal year, Diaz said, but was pushed up and funded using money left over from getting the permit system up and running.
“We had to completely change how we interact with our citizens, from them doing business to us governing, and their day-to-day lives—how to survive in this environment,” she said. “All of that is on the app.”
As of June 30, the app had been downloaded onto 333 devices, and residents had used it to submit more than 500 service requests (34 were still open as of Thursday). The move to virtual services fits with the city’s larger goal of providing residents with multiple ways to make requests of government, although in-person help will always be available to people who want or need it, Diaz said.
“Our goal is to give you options for almost every form of government so you can do it from your jammies,” she said. “We’re currently evaluating every single contact that people have when they come to city hall—why they come—and seeing if we can find an online alternative. We’ll never take away city hall, but we want people to have that option, and I see that continuing after the pandemic.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.