Transparent Permitting Will Help Small Businesses

San Jose is one city, but two worlds. While our innovative local tech companies—from PayPal to Polycom to Pinger—continue to hire at a pace at which they cannot find enough qualified workers, San Jose continues to suffers from an unemployment rate hovering around 7 percent. Many more of our neighbors work part-time or multiple jobs at far less pay than they earned before the Great Recession.

Small businesses increasingly have become the employers of many San Jose residents—including self-employed entrepreneurs—left behind in the tech boom. One way to address the yawning opportunity gap would focus our municipal energies on lightening the burdens of those small businesses. Hence, my efforts to launch StartUp San Jose several months ago: to fill empty storefronts by leveraging the entrepreneurial energy of our community with fee waivers, wi-fi access and marketing assistance.

Yet as we all know, City Hall can get in the way. The permitting process serves as a frequent source of frustration; red tape, uncertainty, conflicting directives and delays drive small business owners batty. Although processes have improved in recent months, stories still echo of store owners who anxiously await a city permit that will entitle them to start operating or employing workers. By the time they’re finally granted the permit to operate, they’ve burned through most of their marketing budget by paying a lease for nine months without any revenue.

How do we “fix” this? Technological innovation can help, particularly by improving the transparency and accountability of City Hall. That’s why I recently proposed an initiative with Councilmember Johnny Khamis to take two important steps toward a solution: employing tracking software, and launching what’s known as an “open data” platform.

First, the tracking software: currently, you can order a FedEx package from Timbuktu, and you can track its progress each mile with to a simple website, but if you submit an application for a city permit, it may disappear into a bureaucratic abyss. Customers cannot know who to call, how to get it expedited, or the reason for the delay.

Relatively simple software, however, can identify the desk on which every application rests in City Hall, and for how long. It can also pinpoint the source of any delay, such as an incomplete application, staff deliberation, or inaction due to a lengthy queue at intake. By looking at the paths of thousands of such applications, and aggregating that data, we can isolate “choke points” where management might improve employee training, or implement streamlining measures, like automation. Managers can also identify effective employees, and reward them for their performance. Simply, City Hall becomes more accountable.

Next, we can improve the process by releasing all of the data that we’ve collected to the public. How? Launching City Hall’s first “open data” platform, in which the city allows the public to download of all of the data from a website—with the names and personal information appropriately redacted—that the city collects. Open data platforms have enabled innovative software developers in other cities to create desktop software and smartphone applications to do everything from warning diners of restaurants with frequent health code violations, to informing transit riders of the arrival time of the next bus.

In this case, by hosting a “hack-a-thon” for local apps developers, we can unleash their innovative skills to provide smartphone apps that will help customers with “real-time” information, via a website or automated text, to inform them about the permit’s status, who to call if it appears “stuck,” and which supervisor to appeal to. The app could to inform customers of the average duration for the approval process of each permit type, so they can budget accordingly. Software developers might also find innovative ways to streamline processes, such as by using web-based tools that eliminate a trip to City Hall.

San Jose has no shortage of civic-minded software developers—including many bright college students—who want to make our city a better place, and who can “beta-test” a potentially successful smartphone app, using San Jose as their laboratory.

By unleashing their creativity, we can improve the ways that our city services its residents, and boost our local economy.

Sam Liccardo is a councilman for San Jose’s District 3.


  1. Will this open data platform include police and fire dispatch records currently given to and  Both these sites deceive residents by deleting calls not handled because of the shortage of police officers.

  2. It is almost crazy to go through the city for permits. How does a small business even bother to apply with all the BS it has to go thru.  And yet a “strip club” opens up under your watch.  Ok bikini club with a porn star the opening act.

    And while we have you blogging,

    Sam, please explain the bike lanes that are driving people crazy, and can you please explain the private security patrol, directed by a loser in city council race hoping to operate in your district.  He is a current SJPD officer endorsed by the VP Madison to provide private security at a cost to residents.  When they call 911 police will respond and not these private patrol.  Remember there is no “stand your ground in CA”.  Why would citizens pay for a private patrol to make a citizens arrest when they can do the same?  I suggest residents invest in a security system and cameras.  It will be a lot cheaper and less expensive if one of these guys injuries someone on your property.

  3. What happens when the permitting process is meant to discourage specific small business enterprises?  Like that strip place that you are trying to send through permit hell.

    Cities like San Jose have complex and often times unenforced regulations just so the city government can selectively encourage and discourage whatever activity they decide needs it.

    To streamline things, why not just have a fee that can be paid to the appropriate councilperson to “expedite” a particular permit.  You can make something like that legal by having the “fee” go towards a councilperson’s “community fund”.  Those funds would be used to fund community activities that improve the community standing of said councilperson.

    For some context read the post on “rent-seekers”

  4. The sheer audacity and chutzpah of Sam Liccardo advocating for transparency is amusing. He has marched in lockstep with one of the most opaque and deceptive administrations this city has ever seen.

    Want to divert money away from city employees? Perpetuate a big lie ($650 million pension shortfall) that facilitates the passage of Measure B.

    Want to continue to villainize public safety? Lie about the fact that it is Measure B and sub-par compensation which is driving police officers from the city in droves.

    Get caught with $92 million in cash hidden away during negotiations with Police and Fire? CREATE(!!!) new reserve funds to make it seem as though the monies can’t be used to restore pay to your overworked public safety employees.

    OH, and, lest I forget Mr. ‘I Got My Feelings Hurt’ Khamis. Get bent about a turn of phrase used in a campaign mailer against you, what do you do??? Attempt to extort SJPOA and Local 230 by telling them that you won’t meet with them unless they donate money to a group which combats racism.

    Yeah. That’s right. I said extortion. Scott Herhold – sniveling City Hall bootlicker that he is – wouldn’t actually come right out and say it, but the reality is pretty clear for those who read his piece from 1/14/13:

  5. Deal with Public Safety first , and then you’ll see Business’s want to start up in San Jose . you can dance around it al you want , but everybody wants to feel safe and secure. Truth is right here right now , San Jose IS NOT that place.

    On another note , It would be impossible for me and most residents to believe anything that come out of your Mouth , Sam .  You and Mayor Reeds Posse Have lied and exaggerated about multiple things . And when confronted you side step or come up with some insanely unbelievable excuse . Nothing would please me more than to San Jose grow again. I just dont believe that this administartion or any that has Reeds Posse ( you included) in it can get San Jose where we need to be

  6. This blog post is short on facts. Please name me one propective business owner whose project is being “held up” by staff. There is probably no city in the bay area with a more streamlined permitting process than CSJ.

  7. Sam,
    Your downtown district needs to be cleaned up first. While some businesses might come downtown, what is the point if a family, or people in general, don’t feel safe enough to patronize that business? If I were a small business looking to open, your district is sure not the area that would be on my short list, even if the permit process was made easier. Too many crackheads, prostitutes, and gangsters to make it desirable.

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