Data-Smart City Solutions


By Alex Lawrence

This guest-authored post was written by Alex Lawrence, the City of Boston's permitting project manager. The post is part of the Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century City project.

From his first day in office, Mayor Marty Walsh committed to ensuring that business owners and entrepreneurs are able to successfully start, grow, and maintain businesses in Boston. Sixty days later, when Mayor Walsh spoke about economic development in Boston at the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, he said, “Looking ahead, we have begun to design a more efficient, transparent, and equitable system for future growth. It starts with permitting.”

Permitting is one of the most common ways that businesses owners, and Bostonians at large, interact with the City of Boston. When Mayor Walsh was running for office, he frequently heard complaints about how challenging the permitting and licensing process was for small business owners in Boston — and has made it a priority of his administration to tackle these issues head on.

A labyrinth-like permitting process is a huge barrier to growth for entrepreneurs who are starting small businesses.

To those who have never had to get a permit or a license, the topic of reforming the permitting process may not seem exciting. But those who have spent weeks or in some cases months traveling across the city to various departments to get permit approvals understand that this process is essential to the economic health of Boston. It may be manageable for big developers with professional permit “expediters,” but it’s a huge barrier to growth for entrepreneurs who are starting small businesses.  

To solve this problem, Mayor Walsh challenged his team to comprehensively evaluate and improve the City’s permitting experience. Mayor Walsh created an interagency permitting team, which has been meeting regularly since February of last year to improve the process, technology and tracking of permit applications citywide. Below are some highlights of what this group has done so far.

1) Engaging the Tech Community and Seeking Creative Solutions

Hackathon participant Christine Miao uses post-its to map out the permitting process for small businesses. (Credit: Alex Lawrence)

In August, Boston held a Hackathon where developers, designers, city employees, and other interested residents worked together to attempt to solve a series of challenges that represented the most pressing pain points for those seeking permit applications.

Teams picked among four available challenges related to the permitting system of the City of Boston. They then presented their solutions, and those with the best ideas were recognized.

Days later, the City released an RFP for a vendor to build a better online system focused on small business and homeowners who do not have the resources to hire an attorney and/or permit expediters. In December, the City announced its partner for this project and is working to deploy a modern system that meets Boston’s high standards for innovation and usability.

2) Expanding and Streamlining the Appeals Process, Especially for Those Undergoing Small Projects

In response to the long wait times,and other inconveniences for relatively minor zoning variances needed to open a small business or perform home renovations, Mayor Walsh lengthened Zoning Board of Appeals hearings from half days to full days. He also created a subcommittee which enabled shorter hearings with shorter wait times outside of business hours for small businesses and 1-2 Family Owner-Occupied Residential Cases. These expansions enabled the City to nearly eliminate a 100+ backlog of cases waiting to be heard.

Screenshot of the Permit Finder status look up tool

3) Using Technology to Streamline Processes and Provide Constituents with Answers

Most recently, the City has unveiled a new online permit tracking tool called Permit Finder, built off a prototype developed at the City's hackathon in August. Permit Finder allows residents, contractors, and the general public to check the status of permits through the approval process. The application provides information on future steps in the approval process, City staff responsible for portions of the process, and timelines for each step in the process through a simple search interface.

4) Looking at the Numbers

In addition to streamlining processes and better using technology, Boston is also using data analysis and performance management to drive improvements. This has led to some great results:

  • On-time permit issuance has increased to 75%, up from 56% in March 2014.
  • The Inspectional Services Department issued 12,500 more permits in 2014 than in 2013, an increase of 21%.
  • Long-form permits are reviewed and issued within an average of 23 days, down from 28 days in March 2014.
  • This past spring, the City had a backlog of approximately 3,500 open building complaints. Today, there are only 212 open complaints.

What’s Next?

This process is far from over and, under Mayor Walsh’s leadership, the interagency permitting team continues to pursue more projects like these, including more fundamental regulatory reforms and zoning updates. Stay tuned for what’s next at

About the Author

Alex Lawrence

Alex Lawrence is the City of Boston's permitting project manager. In this role, she manages projects aimed at improving process and technology behind permitting, licensing, operations, and customer service. She earned a Master in Public Policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and worked in the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics as an Ash Center Summer Fellow. She previously worked as operations manager at Action for Boston Community Development.



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