Ending the Department of Building’s Paper Chase


For 90 years, the New York City Department of Buildings has been advancing public safety, promoting development—and pushing paper. While DOB’s commitment to safe construction will never change, we’re moving forward with 21st century technology and leaving behind the file folders and floppy disks (yes, we still use those).

SEE ALSO: Rick Chandler Steps Down After Five Years as DOB Head

This week, we’re launching the first phase of a new program called DOB NOW that will soon enable New Yorkers to do all their business with DOB online. Among other things, this means no more waiting in line for a building permit—you’ll be able to print permits from home or the office; no more waiting to hear if we’ve approved your application—you’ll be able to track the progress of your job in real time and receive alerts when we take action; and no more hauling stacks of building plans to our headquarters—you’ll be able to submit documents electronically and schedule online meetings with our team.

These long-overdue improvements flow from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision of fundamental reform at DOB. The mayor is making unprecedented investments in DOB to modernize how we do business so we can better serve all New Yorkers. I spent 17 years at DOB before becoming commissioner, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen this level of commitment from any administration.

Why is this important? Real estate and construction drive the city’s economy. But unlike finance, insurance or other top industries in New York, construction is regulated mainly by the city. Modernizing DOB will not only make dealing with the city’s bureaucracy less aggravating, it offers a unique opportunity to boost our economy and create the housing, jobs and infrastructure upon which 8.5 million New Yorkers depend.

Supplementing DOB NOW, we’re hiring hundreds of new staff members so we can better address safety lapses at construction sites and review building applications more quickly. 

Consistency is key. Just as taking shortcuts on a construction site is the enemy of safety, unpredictability from regulators is the enemy of economic growth. We want to make sure that building plans are evaluated quickly and that applicants get consistent answers, no matter which DOB examiner is handling the review or which borough they work in. DOB NOW will help us monitor how building applications and construction licenses are reviewed and approved to ensure that everyone gets equal treatment.

DOB NOW also promotes integrity through vastly increased oversight. I’m sure that many of you have heard the dismal stories of old New York, in which envelopes of cash accompanied building applications. Times have changed dramatically since then, and I’m proud of the culture of ethical conduct and vigilant transparency we have instilled at DOB. But the impression lingers. The past confers on us a special responsibility to reinforce the public’s confidence.

With DOB NOW, the actions of our plan examiners and inspectors will be fully transparent to the agency’s leadership and to the public. Most of our records are already online through our Building Information System, but DOB NOW will take things much further. You’ll be able to track every step of our work, often in real time. If you hire an architect, engineer, plumber or other professional, you’ll be able to track their work, too. We want New Yorkers to have more access to our systems so they can know what we’re doing and where their jobs stand. We want the people who do business with us to be involved and informed and to help hold us accountable.

The first phase of DOB NOW, which launches today, will allow online filing of applications for plumbing and sprinkler jobs. Other job types—for example, façade reports and eventually applications for entire new buildings—will be transferred to DOB NOW throughout this year and next. By 2018, the system will be completed, and it will serve as the entry point for all DOB transactions.

While we are not yet mandating the use of this new system, we soon will. This gradual rollout will help us work out the kinks in the system over time. Indeed, few technology improvements have ever been implemented without some bumps in the road.

I encourage our partners in the real estate and construction industries to sign up for DOB NOW and get familiar with our new system.

Change can be uncomfortable. But the buildings department is striding into the 21st century, for the benefit of all New Yorkers. The “paper chase” is finally coming to an end.