Zoning Practice — October 2012
Ask the Author
Here are reader questions answered by George Arimes, author of the October 2012 Zoning Practice article "Transparent Development Services."
Question from Curt Paddock, AICP, Will County, Illinois:
I found a great deal of value in your recent article, "Transparent Development Services." My department utilizes many of the system elements you recommend, and we are always trying to move further along the evolutionary scale toward total integration and seamless service.
Here's my question: do you see any limitations or problems with defining the applicant as "the customer"? Obviously, I have reservations about the term or I wouldn't be asking the question. I believe that the department's true "customer" is the public-at-large who relies upon us to make sure that the projects we process and approve, individually and collectively, preserve, promote, and protect that public "customer's" health, safety, and general welfare. The department has its greatest moral, ethical, and legal responsibilities/obligations to the public-at-large "customer."
Defining the individual applicant, whether a householder or a business, as the department's sole customer can unintentionally set up the expectation that fulfilling that individual's project plans is more important than ensuring fulfillment of the department's primary obligations to the public interest. Naturally, this is not an either/or proposition. However, use of the term "customer" as a description of a person or firm subject to regulatory compliance can set up a distorted expectation, which suggests that such a party is owed the same kind and degree of solicitousness and accommodation as someone purchasing private goods or services, even if to do so would sacrifice the welfare of the general public. Your thoughts?
Answer from author George Arimes:
No, I don't see a problem with defining the applicant or anyone walking through your doors as a "customer." In the article I have defined customer more broadly. There is not a "sole customer," since a customer can be anybody that requests services including the owner (applicant), an owner's representative, individuals doing research, or a citizen interested in active projects. I think the bigger issue is what is meant by "customer" in the context of public health, safety, and general welfare.
Using the name "customer" to represent a "development service system user" may make staff feel uncomfortable. However, anyone walking into your agency should expect to be treated with dignity and respect, be listened to, and helped. They should not be bounced around, provided piecemeal information, and left on their own to understand the process. That's poor customer service, no matter if it is a public agency or a private business selling goods.
I think you are getting at a whole different underlying issue from your perspective. Perhaps embedded in your view of a customer is the notion or question of whether staff has to water down or make concessions on the regulations to provide good customer service? Staff has two roles in my mind: 1) ensure that regulations are implemented to protect the public's interest (regulator role), AND 2) provide excellent service to the public regardless of who enters the system (public servant role). Staff's job is to perform both roles equally well. It should not be one or the other.
Unfortunately, I have seen in too many agency staff have a mentality of "my job is to enforce codes and regulations, not help the customer design their project or help them get through the process. They should hire a professional to help them." Individual staff members are each experts (planning, building, engineering, etc.) on your process and respective requirements.
System users (customers) typically don't have the same knowledge of requirements as staff. Therefore, customer service should focus on making the process and its complexity simpler to understand and more user-friendly. You don't sacrifice requirements for service. Don't confuse providing customer service with performing your role to review proposals, implement regulations, and protect the public's interest. I feel an important training task for administrators/managers is to ensure staff understand AND accept that they have two roles to perform.
Question from Cheri Rekow, AICP, Cincinnati, Ohio:
- What metropolitan cities have overhauled their codes and procedures recently?
- Is there a developer anywhere who would admit that a municipal development/permit process was reasonable? If so, can you provide contact info?
Answer from author George Arimes:
- With the downturn in the economy over the past several years, cities and counties in every state have made strides to evolve, improve customer service, and become more competitive. However, "overhaul" is a relative term because you don't know at what stage a community is at when improvements begin. I have direct knowledge of several communities, such as Lake County, Illinois; Corpus Christi, Texas; and several cities in the Silicon Valley that have shifted toward transparency. If your community is looking to improve, there are best practices in each of the infrastructure components I have discussed. This issue of Zoning Practice was intended to give you examples of some of those improvement ideas.
- This feels like a trick question. I would suggest instead of canvassing the U.S. for the elusive "happy developer" to quote, I think you should just assemble and ask your local key customers what success looks like and what is reasonable in their eyes. Develop a sincere partnership with them to define and achieve improvements that hit at the heart of their needs. Don’t get defensive about their viewpoints. Keep them involved when making changes happen and don’t be afraid for customer to keep you (including administration and elected officials) accountable for results. Your customers are your asset and they can be your litmus on whether service is actually better. My years of experience have shown that a true partnership will build trust and create a real respect for what your job entails in development services. A little scary, however, I have done this with numerous communities and it works.