Innovation & Technology

Permit Reform

Reform and Continuous Improvement of the City's Permitting Process

The I&T Department led the restructuring of three City departments, creating a new Department of Permitting & Inspections to oversee the City's permitting system from a unified perspective. The restructuring of the City team supported the outstanding work of DPW in renovating their existing facility to accomodate the public and the new Department effectively and the leadership of Bill Ward in managing the new Department. I&T will continue to support ongoing process reforms to further improve the permitting system under this new structure. I&T is also leading the replacement of the City's dated permitting software platform in a way that should improve resident access and awareness of their permit requests, save residents time, and make City operations more efficient.

How the New Permitting & Inspections Department Works

In the past, the process of obtaining and closing out a City permit for Burlingtonians looking to make improvements to their homes and small businesses often involved three different departments. City employees worked hard to advance requests, but the process was cumbersome and often unintuitive, especially for residents who interacted with it only occasionally.

For a typical small project, members of the public would start at the Planning & Zoning Department at City Hall, then travel to the Inspection Services Division at 645 Pine Street, and then get the review of the Code Enforcement Office at Pine Street. In interviews and focus group, members of the public described “dozens of examples describing situations that required permit applicants to shuttle between departments, located in two buildings approximately a mile apart, to obtain signatures, sign documents, pick up permits, make payments, and get questions answered.” For even routine projects, the likelihood of getting through permitting correctly the first time was about 20 percent.

“Ultimately, it will be necessary for the City to create a more centralized permitting function within City government in order to make the significant and long-lasting improvements to the permitting process that the City desires to achieve,” a third-party report found in 2017.

On January 15, 2020, the City marked the completion of three major reforms to this system:

  • Creation of a one-stop-shop permit center: The renovated customer service center at 645 Pine Street is now the location for all municipal permitting and land use needs.
  • Launch of the unified Department of Permitting and Inspections (DPI): The new Department includes 20 positions that previously were dispersed among Planning and Zoning, the Department of Public Works, and Code Enforcement.
  • Single point of accountability: In contrast to the prior system, in which oversight of the process was spread among three department heads, one of whom was appointed by the Planning Commission, the DPI Director now oversees the entire process, and is appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council on an annual basis.

With these reforms in place, now, all of the functions of permitting – zoning, building inspections, and code enforcement – have been combined into the new Permitting & Inspections Department. Importantly, the City employees who do this work were closely involved in the discussions about how to best make these changes, and their job descriptions have remained similar. The big change is that these employees are now all working together directly, located in the same place at 645 Pine Street, and reporting to the same person – Bill Ward, the director of the new department.

Having these functions working together and in one location will also allow the City to more easily identify and correct inefficiencies in the future, and track, for example, how many times fees are collected over the course of the permitting process, or how many permits are getting successfully closed.

In addition to enhanced service, the changes of permit reform will create new efficiencies that will result in ongoing savings for taxpayers estimated at more than $100,000 annually.

Goals for the Permitting & Inspections Department’s First Year

While the one-stop shop for permitting now physically exists, and the new department has been meeting and training with LEAN management consultants over the last year, its reformed processes continue to be created and refined and will take time to fully implement. Over the next year, the department has outlined three key metrics that it will track in order to measure its success. These are:

  • Improving the permit application intake success rate by more than 10 percent: Currently, about one-third of initial applications are returned to the customer due to errors or incomplete submissions. Over the next year, the department will work with applicants in order to improve the rate of applications that are approved the first time around.
  • Improving the permit closure success rate by 40 percent: A 2019 estimate identified that 50 percent of a customer’s attempts to close permits were unsuccessful because the customer had not completed all of the required steps. The new department will create greater coordination of all parts of the permitting and inspections process, allowing the department to set the goal of greatly increasing this permit closure success rate.
  • Improving the overall “first time right” success rate from 22 percent to 68 percent: This success rate is an evaluation of a customer’s ability to go through the permit process from start to finish without missteps, and over the next year, the department will closely track this rate and aim to significantly increase it.

“I feel very fortunate that the new department has a great team of experienced City employees who are enthusiastic and dedicated to improving every area of the permitting process,” said Bill Ward, Director of Permitting & Inspections. “The public can now expect to see the three departmental divisions of Code Enforcement, Zoning, and Trades all working closely as one entity to simplify the customer experience.”


Improving the City’s permitting process is something that Burlingtonians have asked for, and that the City has discussed, for decades. The initiative to create the Permitting & Inspections Department formally began in 2014, when the Council and Administration held a public hearing on “reforming Burlington’s permit system” that resulted in a Council Resolution calling for a “soup to nuts” reform effort.  “An overly burdensome permit system is one of the most significant barriers to building more housing in Burlington,” a Council resolution noted at the time.

The initiative took on the name “permit reform,” and over the next three years, the City issued an RFP for a consultant to work with City staff to review the City’s permitting process and make recommendations, held public forums and conducted a public survey, and delivered recommendations to the City Council. The Council formed a Permit Reform Ad Hoc Committee, made up of three Councilors, to consider the recommendations, and in August 2017, voted to accept a plan for permit reform. In the fall of 2017, the City also convened a citizen Permit Reform Advisory Committee in order to have additional engagement and advisement from members of the public during the implementation of permit reform.

Over the next year, members of the City team, including multiple department heads and Mayor Weinberger, met regularly in order to work through the nuts-and-bolts of the implementation – including changes to the organizational structure, moves of the physical locations of employees, updates to the City’s codes and ordinances, reforms to the steps in the permitting process, and reviews of existing fees.

In March 2019, voters approved a ballot question to amend the City Charter in order to remove zoning, code enforcement, and inspection services from their previous departments, and combine them into the new Permitting & Inspections Department. Following a reconfiguration of the City building at 645 Pine Street in order to create the space for the new department, the new one-stop permitting center is now open to the public.