Austin's Planning and Development Review Department was singled out for its excellent use of online services. Austintexas.gov

That's just one of the findings of a recent survey of technology adoption in local government.  

Almost anything that used to involve standard paperwork, you can now do easily online, right? Ordering food, paying your bills, applying for jobs and schools—from the mundane to the complex, these types of transactions are routine not only on desktop computers, but increasingly on mobile devices as well.

One sector that has lagged in this area is government (remember HealthCare.gov?). And a recent survey released last week by Planetizen suggests that local governments are seriously behind—the vast majority of municipal planning departments in the U.S. are not offering services such as building permit applications online.

“You see such growth in the private sector and what I feel is such a tech-savvy citizenry,” says Billy Riggs, assistant professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the report’s lead author. “At our most basic level of operating cities we may not be hitting the market in terms of reaching customers.”

Riggs and his team designed the survey as a benchmarking study to see where things really stand in terms of tech adoption by U.S. planning departments. They used 12 criteria to evaluate the planning departments of 527 cities in three separate population categories: under 100,000 (small), 100,000 to 199,000 (medium), and over 200,000 (large). Of these, 523 had websites (the four without were not included in the rest of the survey). Beyond that simple online presence, however, the levels of information and services available online varied widely.

A few of the report’s key findings:

  • Some 83 percent of city planning departments offer their zoning codes online.
  • Just 15 percent of planning departments use responsive design on their sites, which makes content more accessible across all devices including phones and tablets.
  • Online permitting is offered by just 21 percent of planning departments. “There are so few cities that offer really robust e-permitting systems,” says Riggs. “I think that’s a large opportunity space for local government, especially in an era of scarcity. You might not need the brick and mortar infrastructure for an over-the-counter building permit.”
  • Only 10 percent of planning departments have a social media presence. “That can offer the ability to truly hear from citizens,” says Riggs. “You or I, if we’re traveling and we’ve been stranded in the airport, we can tweet that we’re frustrated—with ‘hashtag Delta,’ for instance. If you had an issue with a permit, a government agency could be proactive.”

Riggs says that some cities, both larger and smaller ones, are doing an exceptionally good job with their use of technology. He cites New York City, Austin, Louisville, and Santa Monica, California, as four very different municipalities that are leading the way.

Improved online access to the services and information of planning departments, while it requires upfront investment, can mean significant and tangible payoffs for municipalities down the line, says Riggs. Cities that offer online planning services could have an edge, for instance, when it comes to attracting tech-based businesses.

“Empowering the public with [tools such as e-permitting] would only help drive efficiency further,” he says. “There’s a civic argument and a social accessibility argument. Both would be of benefit with most cities around the country.”

Riggs says he understands upgrading can be daunting and expensive, but that some measures—such as simplifying language and discontinuing the use of PDF and Word documents, which are not searchable and aren’t easily accessible across platforms—is one place to start. “Doing a big overhaul is a big initiative,” he says. “If you can’t do that you can always take a shot at making information more accessible and make it simple and easy to read.”

The returns, he suggests, could extend beyond simply making it easier to get a building permit. “A more satisfied and communicative citizenry breeds more public engagement and participation,” Riggs says. “I think it’s a real opportunity to reignite a certain disenfranchised population that feels like they don’t have a voice.”

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