A highly anticipated report on improving operations of Santa Rosa’s community development department found deep cultural problems at City Hall with staff who are professional and well-meaning but feel they’re working in a “dysfunctional environment” that prevents them from providing good customer service.
The 24-page report by consulting firm Management Partners makes 33 recommendations for how to improve customer service at the department, which oversees building code enforcement and issues permits for activities ranging from replacing a water heater to building a subdivision. The recommendations include increasing access to information before the application process begins, improving the efficiency of the process itself, and soliciting feedback from customers.
While blunt in its assessment of the problems in the department — including long wait times, insufficient staff, and a “risk averse” culture that defaults to “no” instead of focusing on solutions — the department’s interim director said the report will act as a roadmap for immediate and longer-term changes.
“There is an incredible amount of excitement from staff and the building community about this,” David Guhin said. “Our staff is genuinely interested in making customers have a better experience.”
Specific recommendations include expanding the hours the counter is open to the public, updating the website and allowing more functions to be accomplished online, tracking turnaround time for applications, and increasing staff who can issue over-the-counter permits.
City Manager Sean McGlynn hired Management Partners earlier this year to perform a review of the department. Consultants interviewed planning and building department staff, employees from other city departments, and 20 customers and community members about their perceptions of the department.
The final report was delivered to McGlynn June 19. Three days later, he reassigned the department’s director, Chuck Regalia, a 41-year manager, to focus full time on long-range planning issues such as Roseland. Guhin, the director of the city’s utilities department, was named interim director.
The consultants noted that planning and development is a “highly visible and complex function” of city government. And they cautioned that it was “challenging to draw too many conclusions” about the department from a few interviews.
Nevertheless, customers interviewed complained that city staff “does not sufficiently appreciate that time is money” and “does not facilitate solutions to issues.”
“Overall, customers express that some staff are looking for ways to delay projects and say ‘no,’ rather than helping customers to (reach) successful outcomes,” the report found.
The comments weren’t all critical. In fact, many praised city staff for their responsiveness and professionalism, as well as their work to create a friendly environment.
“However we also often heard the comment that while the staff was trying hard, they are working in a dysfunctional environment and that despite their best efforts, overall service is poor,” the report found.
The report didn’t merely rely on opinions and anecdotes. It reviewed performance and found that service had declined in recent years. For example, planning staff used to strive to see customers in less than 10 minutes. But average wait times have increased from 4.1 minutes in 2009 to nearly 22 minutes today, the report found.
The report laid much of the blame for the problem on staffing levels, which it noted decreased more than the volume of applications.
While total department revenue dropped 57 percent between 2005 and 2009, total permits issued dropped by 37 percent. Since 2009, permit activity has recovered significantly, rising 35 percent by number of permits and 64 percent in dollar value, with no significant increase in staffing.