Can “Civic Hackers” Help the City of Detroit Make Business Run Smoother?

At last Saturday’s National Day of Civic Hacking pain pitch event, held at the Boll YMCA in downtown Detroit, I was hoping to see the place flooded with representatives from Detroit city government. After all, it was an event where government and nonprofit entities were invited to get up in front of a room full of software developers and ask for help in solving their technology dilemmas.

As many Detroit residents know, dealing with the city on property or permitting or business matters can lead to a labyrinthine process that is mostly conducted offline, where you’re often at the mercy of the person you talk to on any given day to move your project forward. This is partly because budget cuts and attrition have resulted in understaffed city offices, but it’s also because Detroit, compared to other American cities of similar size, is woefully behind the times when it comes to automating and streamlining services online.

So I figured the chance for budget-beleaguered city offices to work with private sector whiz kids on fixing their technology ills would draw I big crowd. I was wrong. Only one city department was at the pain pitch event, the Building, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED). But it’s an office vital to startups and Detroit property developers, so their presence should be considered good news for the business community.

BSEED is charged with regulating the construction and environmental codes associated with new construction or building renovations. The department also handles business licensing, zoning, plan reviews, demolition, property maintenance, and various other related licenses and permits.

Dave Bell, who pitched the software developers on behalf of the department, said due to cutbacks and retirement, the department is not adequately staffed to answer phone calls from the public. Every time a permit  is issued, three inspections are required, which keeps employees out in the field and mostly unavailable for clerical work like answering phones, which means if you have an inspection coming up but are unsure exactly when it is, calling the office will likely be a fruitless endeavor.

Bell said the property development community has been asking for other changes for “15 or 20 years,” particularly in the way plan reviews are handled. So, in addition to seeking help from the private sector, BSEED is rolling out a new department processes and procedures at an event on June 27 at Cobo Center. (The event is free but requires registration; click here to register.)

Helen Broughton’s business card lists her title with BSEED as Business Advocate II, but it was clear she’d taken an interest in improving the way the department was functioning all-around since coming on board last fall. “If we want to be the Detroit of the future, we have to have more transparency and civic engagement rather than having super closed doors, where you think of the city and want to tear your hair out,” she said. “It should not be that difficult.”

She said thanks to a concerted effort over the past year to capture lost revenue and increase efficiency, the department now is now in the black to the tune of $5 million. “We really feel like business begins and ends with us, and we think we can make a really big impact on making business run smoother in the city of Detroit,” she explained.

Broughton noted that the department plans to do better at education and outreach so new businesses owners know how to work with BSEED to in the first place. Another big push is connecting with businesses operating illegally in the city and padlocking the doors of businesses that don’t respond to notices or tickets. “It’s really important to reset the baseline so customers can hold us accountable and we can expect the same accountability in return,” she added.

But back to the issue of how will BSEED get its phones answered. Scott Kloustin, co-founder of RingCatch, a local Internet-based, on-demand answering service, came up to Broughton as soon as pitching had concluded and offered his services. Could bringing Detroit city operations into the 21st century really be as easy as connecting bureaucrats with the local tech community? For the sake of anyone rooting for a successful Detroit, let’s hope so.

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One response to “Can “Civic Hackers” Help the City of Detroit Make Business Run Smoother?”

  1. Very cool writeup — nice shout out to the Ringcatch team who could easily help solve the cust. service issues experienced by BSEED.