Keene said the initiative, entitled Blueprint for a New Development Center, aims to significantly improve service at the Development Center for applicants passing through the city's building and permitting process. He said the city is preparing to survey stakeholders to solicit feedback and suggestions about possible improvements.
The effort aims to tame a development process that has long been a source of local anger and ridicule. Developers, business owners and residents seeking to expand or modify their houses have complained for decades about the convoluted nature of what's become derisively known as the "Palo Alto Process."
The new initiative would focus on one major area of the "Palo Alto Process" — the customer's experience at the Development Center.
At a July 28 press conference, Keene listed a series of recent complaints the city has received from project applicants. One involved a restaurant owner who claimed that different inspectors asked him to meet different requirements; another business owner complained about waiting for more than two hours at the Development Center. One resident had his electricity switched off by the Utilities Department because he was making minor changes to his house, even though he was living in the house at the time of the construction.
Other customers complained about extensive requirements, long processes and slow turnaround time, which was most likely caused by a lack of coordination between the building and planning divisions, Keene said.
As part of the new initiative, the city plans to survey frequent users of the Development Center and create staff teams that would focus on boosting customer service at the front counter of the Development Center. Keene said the city also wants to look at streamlining the review process, restructuring hours of operations at the Development Center and making better use of technology.
The customer experience at the Development Center needs to be much better, Keene said.
"The background noise in the community about the development process is something we hear about all the time," Keene said. "We know we can improve the process."
Many of the changes will be instituted before the end of this year, Keene said, while others will be implemented by July 2011. Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said city officials want to hear feedback from residents and Development Center users before they decide on specific changes. The city has already implemented some changes, including online permit applications and a permit "kiosk" at the Development Center that allows customers to access records.
Keene said the city plans to make the process completely transparent. The initiative will include metrics for measuring improvements in service level and periodic updates to the City Council.
Larry Perlin, Palo Alto's chief building official, said staff has recently visited seven different cities that are comparable to Palo Alto to see how they operate their Development Centers and learn about their permitting processes. Some of the cities had appointment-based systems in place, he said. Others had longer hours of operations or turned over counter service to senior planners with decision-making powers.
Palo Alto officials plan to consider these day-to-day protocols, as well as more substantial investments such as video-conferencing technology and an ombudsman position that can cut through the multi-departmental bureaucracy and follow up with customer requests.
"For a lot of this, we don't need to reinvent the wheel if we can just put in the best practices," Perlin said.
Keene called the new drive toward improving the Development Center one of the key initiatives he has personally chosen to undertake this year. He said he has undertaken similar restructuring efforts at other cities and that he knows it's possible to bring in major changes.
"Everything is going to be on the table," Keene said.