When it came time for Chicago to overhaul its permitting system four years ago, city officials thought that giving different-sized projects dedicated express lanes might clear up some of the gridlock. The effect has been a 75% reduction in overall processing time.

Standard plan reviews, which make up one-third of the roughly 50,000 permits issued every year, used to sit in city hall for over 120 calendar days. “We are now down to 30 days,” says Richard L. Rodriguez, executive director of the city’s Dept. of Construction and Permits (DCAP).

To accomplish this without adding staff and raising fees, the city hit bureaucracy from all sides. The first step in April 2003 was to spin off DCAP into its own department so the 100-person staff could focus on being “service oriented” as opposed to “a government entity,” Rodriguez says.

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  • It then set up performance metrics and evaluated staff much like a salary review inside a large corporation. The office split up projects into three tracks: small, medium and large. Using the Internet, the city made it easy for applicants to apply for, pay for and print permits for small projects, which account for the greatest volume of permit applications. Last year, 32% of “easy” permits were issued online.

    DCAP decided to outsource plan reviews for projects over 100,000 sq ft to about a dozen local design firms. “But for that program, we would not have eliminated the backlog,” says Rodriguez. Meanwhile, fees have stayed about the same, averaging 1 to 3% of the total cost of construction.

    Chicago also has freed up staff for research and development, such as a pilot project aimed at going paperless. Last June, Chicago set aside a few workstations to push

    35 large-scale projects through a paperless review. It invested in a software program called Buzzsaw and 32-in.-wide monitors to make plan reviews easier on the human eye. So far, eight of the projects have been permitted.

    How well does it work? “It’s yet to be seen,” says Rodriguez.

    Whether or not Chicago ends up going paperless for good, the city is well on its way to streamlining permitting. By prioritizing staff, salaries, fees and wait times, the city’s goal is to operate more like a business than a bureaucracy.

    Technology has helped speed up permitting, and Chicago so far has invested $4 million in new software and hardware. “We will eventually get to the point where we are going to be able to say this number of resources equals this number of days in permit,” says Rodriguez. “But we are not there quite yet.”