Opening a business in Miami doesn’t have to be ‘the worst’

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The New Tropic recently wrote a story about how difficult it is to open a business in Miami. It’s hard to argue. A few years ago, before coming on board at the City, I was a customer trying to help someone get a small business up and running. The incredibly stressful series of transactions nearly broke the business before it got off the ground.

Yes, some of the pain of starting a business is due to getting the runaround and confronting red tape. Government can certainly do better.

It’s also a matter of fact that there are a lot of steps to ensuring a new business is safe and legal. In the thrill of starting a new venture, it’s easy to underestimate what this will take. In my experience, the heavy process slowly stripped away the joy of launching a new venture while consuming hours and dollars.

So there, I said it. I agree that something is wrong with today’s permitting process for small businesses. I think we can also agree on a few other things.

First, government services should be easier to access. In this day and age, we should not have to visit a City office in person for so many things. Let’s move processes online and on to our phone.

Second, we shouldn’t be requiring so much paper. It’s killing trees and a little bit of our souls.

We probably also agree that business owners should be treated like customers – and appreciated as collaborators in creating the Miami of the future. Government-designed permitting processes should reinforce this.

Now, here’s where I might have to convince you a bit.

Urban legend tells you government doesn’t care, that it’s deep organizational problems are insurmountable, and that it doesn’t have the DNA to innovate. I know I’ve only been at the City of Miami for nine months, but I’ll go on record saying that I don’t believe these things to be true.

One of the first conversations I had working at the City was with Devin Cejas, the zoning administrator.

“We’re trying to build a City here,” he said with purpose.

I could feel how aspirational and serious he was about the responsibility. Even as he was short-staffed and fettered by increased workloads, he was envisioning the best possible version of Miami. Since then, I’ve seen others, like Building Director Jose Camero, share similar resolve.

The charge isn’t easy. Last summer, the City began a series of research efforts to study permit processes. We invited a lot of users to provide feedback. They didn’t hold back. Then we took a deep dive into permit data to gain a more granular understanding of process times. The data – also – did not hold back.

Jose embraced the feedback. Ok – maybe he pushed back a little. But after powering through that initial jolt, the team responded with quick, targeted action. Initial findings from the research showed long delays during “structural” portions of plan reviews. The department added structural reviewers, reducing delays by about 40 percent. Devin also has new staff on the way to shorten zoning delays.

There were other immediate changes. Sometimes it’s all about small, analog “innovations.” The department set up an information desk and signage in permit offices to help with way-finding. They opened earlier, and they started workshops for design professionals to open conversations about the most common issues.

The extra attention to data and user experiences is significant, leading to more targeted actions – and results. This month, Bloomberg Philanthropies added the City of Miami to its “What Works Cities” initiative. The program helps accelerate how cities use data to drive results. The City is directing these resources toward permit process improvement.

We recently launched alpha.miamigov.com – a prototype of a new City website. A goal is to create plain-language, user-friendly content that clearly explains City processes and regulations. Check out our work-in-progress page explaining how to “Get a Permit to Build a Fence.” If you think it could be better, please tell us how through this form.

The Information Technology department is also working to implement electronic plan submission and review. The team has met with the public, with user departments, and with other municipalities to design a future process that reduces clutter and effectively shaves weeks, maybe months, from certain construction projects.

So, you see, the news isn’t all that grim. We’ve been listening and making changes to process, culture, and tech. There are huge challenges around fixing permitting to make it easier for businesses.

But, to quote Dan Heath in his book Switch, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions.” We’re taking manageable bites.