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Mount Rainier over Tacoma WA waterfront. Building solutions.

In the city offices of Tacoma, Washington, hearing the community is all about “hearing the customer.”

Speed, accessibility, efficiency, transparency, convenience, these hallmarks of customer service are part of the city’s larger strategy to engage residents and drive community development. Jennifer Ward, Tacoma’s management analyst, said digital tools are essential in this effort as regulations change to adapt to new businesses, technologies and shifts in citizen expectations. Evidence of this can be seen in Tacoma’s recent modernization effort to replace and upgrade its permitting tool.

Ward said Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services had struggled with an older enterprise-wide system that had been re-purposed to handle permit applications. Staff quickly realized the IT solution was not built for permitting, and ran into a number of challenges.

“The citizen experience was difficult, because customers felt like there was a wall up between us and them. They had no way to see into the process and understand their application status, what was happening next, and who was reviewing it,” Ward said. “As a result, they felt they had to call in, email staff, or come to the office for every single need. They were completely in the dark.”

Staff made double entries due to a lack of automation, slowing the permitting process; citizens couldn’t pay fees online, check the status of their application, and accessibility overall was limited. These inefficiencies had significant impact on the citizen experience.

“The citizen experience was difficult,” Ward said. “Residents had no way to see into the process.”

Modernizing for Citizen Experience

Accela offered Tacoma the modern solution they were looking for. After implementing Accela’s Civic Solutions for Planning and Building, the city of Tacoma reduced office foot traffic and service calls by providing customers 24/7 permitting access and complete visibility into their application status. To further reduce foot traffic, the agency created an in-house system called “Tracker” to route customers directly to subject matter experts. This solution uses Accela API’s to provide metrics on who the customer saw, how long staff‡ spent with the customer, and captures all notes created by staff members.

By using Accela technology the city is now processing permits at a faster pace. In fact, the agency has saved their permit specialists nearly 30 hours a month in processing “over the counter” permits (permits applied for, reviewed and issued same day). They have also been able to save these specialists an additional 44 hours a month by leveraging Accela to provide ePermits (permits that require no review and can be obtained 24/7).

By reducing the amount of labor-intensive work involved in the permitting process, staff that were previously held up working on manual data entry were now free to work on the agency’s strategic vision, such as improving customer communication. Staff were able to produce customer memos that greatly improved their citizen interaction and satisfaction. Staff were also enabled to start delivering “completeness reviews” on applications. As an added bonus, Ward said the agency discovered savings by being able to eliminate several third-party applications previously used to try and facilitate online application submittals.

“We are looking forward to what’s next,” Ward said. “Citizens and entrepreneurs are coming up with new ideas and they just change our landscape so rapidly and it’s exciting that we have a tool that can respond to that.”

[Learn more about Accela’s Civic Solution for Building]

More than Permitting

Another one of the most significant improvements the City of Tacoma found after implementing Accela were the reporting capabilities. Pre-Accela, the agency required a full-time employee to gain visibility into the number of permits being issued by the City and respond to customer inquiries.

Today, while permitting data reports are essential, other reports used by the organization range from level of service, staff time tracking to help guide business decisions around, and workload management. Reports are automated and open data can be shared across departments and the public. The data from these reports have been further enhanced by adding maps to graphically show the data. These reporting improvements only added to the growing momentum behind the agency’s focus to “hear the customer” and “support innovative solutions”.

Adapting to Changing Demands

Over the past three years, Tacoma has experienced many of the benefits Accela technology has to offer. However, this is just the beginning to an ever-evolving journey. The city is committed to innovate as its citizen’s demands change. Jennifer Ward continued, “We are looking forward to what’s next, and with every-thing changing so fast, we really don’t know what’s next out there. Regulations are changing quickly, and citizens and entrepreneurs are coming up with new ideas that change our landscape so rapidly, and it’s exciting that we have a tool that can respond to that.”

At the end of the day, Ward said the city of Tacoma measures its success by asking these two questions: Did we solve a problem? Did we deliver a product that met a need? And now, she says that when it comes to improving city permitting, they can confidently answer, yes.

Learn more about Accela’s Civic Solution for Planning and Building here.

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