Oracle's cloud platform supports customer service in Vallejo
For most cities, the fees associated with permits and licenses are vital revenue generators. Given growing fiscal uncertainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for cities to have solid systems in place to promote economic development. At the same time, office closures in response to COVID-19 have made it more critical for governments to collect fees virtually. The Planning and Development Services Department in Vallejo, California, is currently implementing a cloud-based online solution to address both these challenges.
Vallejo, located in the northern part of the Bay Area, is known as an affordable alternative to San Francisco. As such, the area has experienced steady construction growth over the last several years, which has put pressure on its Planning and Development Services Department to deliver more with less. Until recently, the city relied on a legacy computer system that couldn’t accommodate online services or payments.
“The legacy system created customer service challenges,” said Leslie Trybull, administrative analyst in the Vallejo Planning and Development Services Department.
“We wanted something that was more modern and could enable online permit services, help us promote economic development by making it easier to conduct business with the city, and deliver a better user experience overall.”
A one-stop shop
In late 2018, department leaders began looking to modernise compliance and regulatory processes for land-use and building infrastructure, permits, and inspections.
“We were very excited about the idea but concerned about our capacity to do it while maintaining day-to-day operations,” said Anne Cardwell, assistant city manager for the city of Vallejo.
“But we knew we needed to make a change. We had to bite the bullet and get it done.”
City leaders considered several options but ultimately landed on Oracle Community Development, a platform designed to help cities manage planning entitlement, building permits, and code enforcement processes.
The platform, which was built specifically for government, offers citizens an exceptional user experience on any device, including simple, guided interactions. It also includes omni-channel engagement capabilities that allow cities to connect with citizens via their channel of choice: social media, phone, email, web self-service, or virtual assistant.
“We chose Oracle Community Development because it would allow us to become a one-stop shop for citizens looking to get business done in the city. It was also user friendly and responsive. It checked a lot of the boxes in terms of what we were looking for and what we were missing in our existing systems and processes,” said Cardwell.
Because the Oracle Community Development platform is built on a cloud-based infrastructure, it would also give the department an opportunity to leverage innovative technologies like chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and a next-generation user experience. And the fact that the solution came from Oracle helped put leadership unease about the migration to rest.
“There are a lot of other products on the market, and while they may look awesome, we wanted to be cutting edge, but not bleeding edge. We were reassured by Oracle’s track record, experience, and reputation,” said Cardwell.
Working with Oracle would also provide the city additional resources it needed to complete the implementation.
“We have smart, motivated people, but as a city we don’t have a lot of bandwidth. We wanted to partner with somebody that would support us. Oracle fit that bill,” said Cardwell.
Department leaders decided on a two-phased approach to implementation, with each phase expected to take approximately 12 months. The first phase would focus on enabling online building and public works permits.
But just as the city dove into the project, the COVID-19 crisis closed city offices and city employees shifted to remote work. Department leaders realised the pandemic brought an added incentive to make self-service permits available online. The new cloud platform would allow residents, inspectors, contractors, and others to continue to conduct their business with the city. Department leaders adjusted rapidly and analysed the permit types in highest demand during the crisis.
“The original plan was to release all three of our trade permits at the same time. But because of the pandemic and the challenges it created for us and our customers, we decided to release the electrical permit early,” said Trybull.
The electrical permit process went live in June 2020, allowing residents to apply and pay for electrical permits online. They can also follow the progress of those permits and request inspections online.
Trybull said the Oracle team was instrumental in helping the city get the electrical permit online ahead of schedule.
“The Oracle team has been very responsive and helpful all along. They explained things thoroughly from day one. They were there step by step as we transitioned from concept to production,” said Trybull.
“When we run into issues, the Oracle team is all over it. They get it done. Their team feels like an extension of our team,” said Cardwell.
Three months after the Planning and Development Services department moved its electrical permit processes online, the number of permits applied for and processed grew by 11%.
“It’s definitely had a streamlining effect. Our staff has fewer calls to make and we are able to process permits faster and reduce backlogs. That also frees up staff to focus on the permits and the people that are not yet online,” said Trybull.
The department has since made plumbing permits available online and plans to make engineering permits available soon.
“We’ll release several other permits over the next couple of months. We plan to be done with phase one in early fall,” said Trybull.
Once phase one is complete, phase two — which includes fire prevention, planning and zoning, and code enforcement permits — will commence. Planning and Development Services staff are already working closely with Oracle’s product development team to iterate on the design elements of those services.
“It’s exciting for our staff to know they have an impact on software that we’re going to use, and that other jurisdictions will use as well. That’s pretty powerful. And it’s a great way to get staff excited about it, too,” said Trybull.
Moving the city forward
The new online services will make it easier for residents to do business with Vallejo’s Planning and Development Services Department, while also allowing projects to be completed and code cases to be resolved faster and more accurately. In addition, the online self-service portal will result in improved financial and operational efficiencies because it will allow staff to focus on processing applications rather than assisting customers with routine requests.
Planning and Development Services leaders also expect the project to encourage other city departments to adopt cloud-based solutions. In September 2019, the city created the position of chief innovation officer and hired Naveed Ashraf, an executive with more than 20 years of public- and private-sector experience, as its inaugural chief innovation officer. Ashraf’s plans include adopting cloud-based platforms to modernise the city.
“This solution is consistent with where our new chief innovation officer sees the rest of the city heading. Having this experience in our department will be helpful to other departments in the city looking to modernise,” said Cardwell.
Most importantly, the new solution will enhance the customer experience, offering tools that make the journey through the permitting or service request process predictable and intuitive, while also providing the city better flexibility.
“Ultimately it’s all about that user experience and making it very welcoming, friendly, and responsive. This solution will be helpful on the front end for the users, but it will also help our staff that assist residents in making it all happen,” said Cardwell.
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