Catherine Geanuracos
July 20, 2021

Four ways to improve (and maybe even avoid) your building/ zoning permitting RFP process (bonus: works for any local government technology purchase)

Is your local government planning on upgrading its permitting or licensing or other technology in 2021? Digitizing your municipal or county permitting workflows and technology can improve things for your staff and your constituents:

  • Less time to issue permits - reductions up to 75% in total time to completion.
  • Increased compliance (and increased revenue) without needing more staff time to deal with increased volume.
  • Staff spend time on work that matters, instead of boring administrative tasks that can be automated
  • More transparency and access to data for applicants, your staff, and your community.
  • Applicants and staff interacting remotely and safely during COVID-10.
Book time for a demo with CityGrows and find out if you even NEED to do an RFP for permit software!

With all these benefits, why isn't every government upgrading their systems? Often it's because they don't want to deal with the hassle of an RFP process. It's understandable - RFPs can take months to develop, even more time to issue and evaluate, and you may still end up with expensive and obsolete technology when you're done. Why does this happen?

  • The "kitchen sink" approach: Far too often we see very small governments issue RFPs with requirements lists more appropriate for large cities. Usually that's because the RFP-development process has been influenced by one or more large vendors and their equally large sales staffs. So a small government that could function perfectly well with a simpler system ends up with a complex piece of tech they can't afford to maintain or update. When you're building an RFP, concentrate on the core outcomes you're looking for - not all the features you'd like to see in a perfect system. It doesn't exist.
  • The "fix is in" scenario: The original purpose of RFPs were to make sure that everyone had a level shot at getting public business. They arose in response to public corruption and favoritism. And the RFP process usually works fairly well when it comes to simple commodities, but for software purchases it can be counterproductive. Because most local governments aren't (and shouldn't need to be!) technology experts, they' often rely on consultants and vendors to understand their own needs. This frequently results in an RFP that's written with only one vendor in mind. Sometimes it's explicit (I'm looking at you, Kane County DOT). This completely defeats the broader purpose of the RFP process - to get local government the best possible deal and the best possible tech.
  • The inertia problem: It's true - change is challenging. But in our current times there is a huge opportunity cost for not modernizing your systems. Beyond the expensive cost for legacy technology licenses and maintenance, there's the lack of trust and transparency that builds up when constituents can't get what they need easily from government. Never mind the impact on job creation of delayed permits and denied licenses! But all that may not have been enough to inspire people to change the way they've done things for the last 20 years. But with COVID impacts, reduced budgets, and retirements, inertia may finally lose out to modernization.

Here are four ways (and a bonus 5th) to get to a new system with the least pain and suffering possible:

  1. Do a google search. Seriously. You'd be surprised how many government issue RFPs without ever checking to see if there is a low-cost, off-the shelf SaaS (software as a service) product that will meet their needs. Some examples include: CityGrows for permitting, ProcureNow for procurement, Citizenlab for community feedback, and many more. It's no coincidence that these are all Civstart cohort members - for some govtech SaaS inspiration check out the full list of Civstart startups.
  2. Check trusted references: Platforms like The Atlas, Govlaunch, Marketplace.City and ELGL's Facebook group are places where you can find out what has (and hasn't) worked for other local government leaders. Ask your peers for help before you turn to consultants.
  3. Focus on outcomes not features: Far too often RFPs are laundry lists of very specific features - even when those features would result in a solution that's far too expensive/ not cost-efficient for the issuing government. The best RFPs are written with the function and impact that the technology should have in mind (For example: "Make it easier for staff to review and approve permit applications" instead of "Mobile app integrated with City's parcel database."
  4. Minimize your requirements and the complexity of the RFP: Smaller startups like us don't usually respond to RFPs (see "The fix is in" above). A short application with minimal custom forms requirements increases the likelihood that more companies will apply.
  5. Bonus: Accept online applications. The requirement still maintained by many local governments that applicants submit hard copies limits the companies that will respond. Also, do you really want your next technology provider to be really good at printing out paper? Or would you rather they spend their resources on their software.
Book time for a demo with CityGrows- you can have a new permitting system live faaster than the time it'd take you to write an RFP.

Catherine Geanuracos

Catherine is the CEO and a Co-Founder of CityGrows. She's dedicated to supporting local governments and helping them improve outcomes for their residents and staff members. She is a former VP of the City of Los Angeles Innovation and Performance Commission and co-founder of LA's Code for America Brigade Hack for LA. She's based in Los Angeles.

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