Examining the Lessons of a Regional Partnership

It can be tough to get everyone in one organization on the same page, much less 20 organizations with competing agendas and priorities. But that's what a group of business and political leaders from California's Silicon Valley undertook in 1993 in an effort to reverse an economic downturn bedeviling the community.

Reeling from a poor economy and from manufacturers moving out of the area, city and county office holders met with high-technology executives to figure out how they could best leverage their combined resources and creativity to improve the economic foundation of the community.

The result was a public/private partnership called Joint Venture Silicon Valley (JVSV), which in the past five years has spawned projects to spur education, health care and economic development.

Among the most productive proj-ect was Smart Valley, an attempt to lay down a common regional technology infrastructure to drive service improvements and economic opportunities across Northern California.

"This valley is the key developer of technology for the world," said Randy Tsuda, director of Smart Permit, a project to create a uniform electronic permit system for the region's governments. "So we said, 'Let's leverage it for the world and revolutionize the way we do business.' "

Smart Permit was one of the more remarkable projects to come out of the JVSV and Smart Valley partnership. It serves as a case study of how multiple jurisdictions were able to work together to create common application standards that strive to improve public service delivery and the costs of doing business with the government.

It hasn't been easy, and today, more than five years later, the participants are still refining and adapting their systems to suit their local needs. "The challenge was bringing people together, actually focusing on common objectives and having deliverable results," said Ruben Barrales, the president and chief executive officer of JVSV.

Setting Up Shop

When JVSV was formed, one of the key problems it faced was that companies wanted to set up shop or expand to different cities in the region but faced different and sometimes competing sets of building approvals. "The private sector was concerned that the regulatory environment was impacting the economy and the competitiveness of local firms," Tsuda said. "So the first thing was to consolidate and unify the building codes."

Michael Garvey, city manager for San Carlos, Calif., recalls an initial meeting about the problem: "Two city managers were invited to attend a meeting with different facility managers who work for major corporations and interact with many cities in the area," he said. "They were frustrated by the permit process in general. It was a three-hour meeting in which the common preface to a question was, 'How come you people can't...?' "

Garvey felt that they had legitimate frustrations. With a lack of building code uniformity, as well as different interpretations of codes by building inspectors, facility managers and architects had to spend extra time personalizing applications for each city and then hand deliver them to each city hall after every change.

"The question[s] came up, 'Why can't we have one code and submit the permit electronically? Why can't you mark it up electronically and issue it electronically?' " Garvey said.

If they could, the city officials realized that ultimately they would have a database of drawings that could help agencies such as fire departments handle emergencies, and they would gain the expertise to create similar applications for other electronic city hall services.

First Things First

The first order of business was to streamline the building code itself. Officials from more than 20 cities negotiated a set of common codes. Eventually, they distilled 444 amendments down to 11 standard amendments. They also addressed the most frequently asked questions and worked on writing consistent interpretations of the code. That group still meets to maintain the uniformity of the code.

The next step was to convene officials from industry and all 29 Silicon Valley cities to draft standards for the permit-tracking software. In the spring of 1996, 10 cities formed a purchasing consortium to buy software using the final standards document as a request for proposals. Seven vendors responded, and the consortium chose Seattle-based Tidemark Systems Inc. as its vendor and began work on a pilot project.

San Carlos and Sunnyvale were chosen to be the pilot cities for Smart Permit. But they did not move in lock step. Instead, they developed individual pieces of Smart Permit technology that best suited their needs.

"No one city can master it all," said Lee Vandiver, manager of systems and networking for Sunnyvale, which has worked on a geographic information system-based permit system. "San Carlos is interested in virtual meetings. We don't have the time to do it, so they did it. And we do things they benefit from. The key factor is we're all going in the same direction, just in different pathways."

Sunnyvale's GIS-based system has been in operation since 1997. The city gets as-needed updates of land parcel data from the county assessor's office; they have a code compliance module to keep track of violators and a planning module for when planners want to rezone a parcel of land. "It's mostly a back-end system to allow staff to do things faster and more easily and to prepare us for using the Internet," Vandiver said.

Lessons Learned

Take a look on the World Wide Web, and you'll find different components of the Smart Permit system already running. Milpitas, Calif., has its

Express Permit system up (www.ci.milpitas.ca.us); San Carlos has debuted the first two online components of the Tidemark permit software; and Sunnyvale has introduced a GIS that is tied into its permit application.

One of the benefits of having the components broken down for piloting by different cities has been that each city is compiling the lessons learned from the effort. "When you get to the task level, each city takes the lead on a specific task and shares with the other cities," said Robert Kraiss, a co-chairman of the Smart Permit Steering Committee and chief of corporate facilities and real estate at Adaptec Inc., a Milpitas data networking company. "And they must make the commitment to do that up front."

Cities and vendors already have learned a lot. One of the issues Vandiver faced was that the architectural community in general was not ready for the Internet. Another thing that sent them back to the drawing board was that there were technical impediments of the computer-aided design systems that didn't allow for signing or stamping a drawing electronically.

On the provider side, companies such as Autodesk Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which donated services to the project, had to live within the realities of the public sector. "The ultimate challenge is that every city has its own time line, its own level of politics, financing issues and priorities," said Neill Vickers, Autodesk's regional technology executive. "We might have Autodesk ready to move forward at lightning speed, but city and local governments can't work that fast."

But the problems haven't offset the benefits of collaboration. "It's kind of friendly competition," Sunnyvale's Vandiver said. "We get together monthly and talk about this particular activity and hear about what others are doing. It makes us want to keep up."

While Barrales admitted that not all of JVSV's projects have been successful-an environmental initiative failed due to poor timing and an inability to attract public- and private-sector champions-Barrales said that's the price of trying to do something on this scale. "One of our successes has been our willingness to try new things and understanding that not everything is going to be a success," he said. "The failure is in not trying. It's an exciting process to bring people together who don't normally sit together-labor representatives, utilities representatives, elected officials and civil servants, and corporate executives-and try to develop a vision for the area."

The project's successes also have led to new problems, which will be addressed in a new five-year blueprint that JVSV is drafting. "Before, we were focusing on development and the attraction and retention of companies," Barrales said. "Now we have a work-force gap, a need to improve education, and we have to look at the issue of the built environment-both the physical and economic growth. As the region grows and the economy goes up and down, you have different challenges in different points in time."

Can Smart Permit be a model partnership that translates to jurisdictions that are not so rich in their tax base or deep in their local technology talent? The partners say the answer is yes.

"We are one of the first regional collaboratives and have the highest profile partly because of being first and because we're Silicon Valley," Barrales said. "We have had opportunities others don't have because of our resources. But Smart Permit is not going to be unique to Silicon Valley.

"The key is," he said, "wherever you are and whatever industries happen to be most predominant, you need to get leaders in those industries to be engaged, along with leaders on the public side, and bring them together as equals.

Where the consortia's ideas might falter on either side is when one is trying to beat up on the other. There needs to be a recognition that both sides are equal partners in developing solutions."

Caron Golden is a free-lance writer based in San Diego. She can be reached at [email protected]


Is the Model Portable?

In February, Cindy Weeldreyer, a county commissioner for Lane County, Ore., received a book that reinforced her instinct that she was moving in the right direction in trying to get her region wired for the Internet. Grassroots Leaders for a New Economy, by Douglas C. Henton, John Melville and Kimberly Walesh (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), brought to life the experiences of some of Silicon Valley's collaborators.

Weeldreyer, who is spearheading the wiring of her region and thinks of herself as a "telecommunications evangelist," needed some inspiration.

"It convinced me I was on the right track in trying to align communities along the new fiber routes being laid down and to approach private-sector companies and say, 'We'd like to work with you,' " she said.

Long a timber- and fisheries-based economy, the western Oregon region is diversifying, attracting high-tech companies such as Sony Pictures Entertainment, Intel Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. to what is increasingly being called Silicon Forest. But the success of the effort has been only along the 110-mile ribbon of Interstate 5 between Portland and Eugene.

"Go 10 miles out from the highway and you won't find it," Weeldreyer said. "What I'm trying to do is make sure that if telecommunications is the railroad system of tomorrow, that we have some stops put in for us along the route."

To that end, Weeldreyer and her colleagues are developing intergovernmental agreements between the cities and counties along this new route to create regional fiber-optic consortia.

"We want to say to them, 'If your business need is to have fiber constructed through our communities, we would be happy to work with our state and federal partners and jurisdictions to streamline the permitting process and waive the rights-of-way fees in exchange for access points to fiber optics or equipment,' " Weeldreyer said.

"Their goal is to connect traffic from Portland to San Diego, not the little communities in between. But we'll help them meet their construction schedule and understand our unique land-use rules because it is important to our communities," she said.

Weeldreyer looks at the Joint Venture Silicon Valley model as a regional collaboration that results in a higher level of cooperation to achieve common interests. "I saw this concept of creating regional partnerships as a way of creating a stronger economy and better quality of life," she said. "In Oregon we're crying that we have too much growth in the west and not enough in the east. The collaboration in telecommunications is the equalizer for success in this new economy."

Weeldreyer met Randy Tsuda, director of Smart Permit, at a conference in May. "I told him, 'What you've done with Joint Venture has been a real inspiration to me with what I'm trying to do.' "

- Caron Golden


Smart Permit Address Book

Joint Venture


Smart Permit




Milpitas Online Express Building Permit Application

San Carlos


San Carlos Smart Permit


Sunnyvale GIS



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