Detroit building director Nate Ford on making department more efficient
Nate Ford, director of the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, says the biggest challenge has been in dealing with antiquated processes, procedures and technology.
“We have not, up to this point, really taken a good look at how we’re doing,” Ford said. “How can we make it more efficient? How can we make it seamless?”
He also said the “culture” of “it’s always been done this way” has been a challenge, but emphasized that the department is making great strides.
To this end, employees are encouraged to think outside of their traditional parameters.
Helen Broughton, business advocate II with the department, added that it’s the difference between employees doing what they’re told and being empowered to think, ‘Is this the best way to do this?’”
Ford acknowledged that morale is not what it should be, but said employees are still going that “extra mile.”
He also said customer service — a huge component of what his department does — is starting to improve.
“That goes along the lines of that culture change,” he said.
With respect to antiquated technology, Ford said the department has an outdated billing system.
“We have to literally manually input and get the output for bills,” he said. “That needs to change.”
Until recently his department didn’t have online permits.
As part of its efforts to update its technology, the building department is piloting having tough-built, hand-held computers for inspectors in the field. Ford wishes he could purchase those computers for all inspectors. However, because of the lack of resources, the department needs to use a phased-in approach.
Ford said his department interacts with everybody from residents seeking a permit to add a porch to business owners looking to expand, alter or enlarge their establishments.
“We like to say we deal with the universe,” he said.
Ford wishes more people knew that his department’s number one job is public health and safety.
“We’re here to improve, in a direct and indirect way, the quality of life for our citizens,” he said, adding that his employees work hard every day to do that, under very difficult circumstances, given that the department doesn’t have the resources it once had.
“I wish they knew that we’re not the bogeyman,” he added. “We want to work with them. We want, obviously, the businesses to boom in the city of Detroit.
“We just want to make sure that it’s done in way that’s safe and healthy for the citizens of Detroit, and for those business owners.”
Ford explained that his department has a mission to provide services that ensure public health and safety are being held to the highest standards.
Despite the reduction in employees, his department is still outputting a quality product and a quality service.
Ford said there’s been a significant reduction in the time frame for getting permits, and that they will be reducing it even more. Hearings have been reduced from 60 days to almost 15 or 21 days.
The department will be educating its customers as to what they would need before coming down to the department.
If a homeowner wanted to add a back porch, Ford said his people would want to see a set of drawings, information on the kind of material to be used, and the cost.
“You can walk in and out in a couple of hours, if you have everything you need,” he said.
In the next 60 to 90 days, the building department will be doing things to revolutionize how it does business.
Ford doesn’t expect the appointment of Kevyn Orr as emergency financial manager to impact his department because it is healthy.
“We are back to generating revenue, if you will,” he said. “We’re looking at our expenditures and seeing where we can cut. I think that is important in terms of lending to a healthy business/department.”
Department officials are also asking themselves how they can do better.
Broughton said the building department is responding to feedback, adding that she understands the frustration of working with the city. She said the department is doing everything it can to make active changes.
She also said Ford, Deputy Director Ray Scott and others in the department have worked with the chiefs of the various divisions to document all of the procedures and determine if A) something makes sense; and B) if not, how they would do it differently.
She came on board last November to assist with communications and PR. She said Ford is eager to let people know that this is not same old building department, and acknowledged that it has been frustrating to work with the department in the past.
“We have heard from customers that it’s getting better, and we want people to know that it will improve even more,” she said.
She added that government should be permeable, and said she’s done things as simple as making sure the department’s website has accurate phone numbers.
A graduate of Cass Technical High School and Morehouse College, where he was marketing major, Ford said he has always wanted to be in public service, a commitment promoted in his household. At 17, he was an intern for then-councilman Nicholas Hood, Sr.
Over the years, Ford has also been executive director of the Booker T. Washington Business Association, a Detroit NAACP board member, and a member of the city’s Board of Zoning and Appeals.
He described being the director of the Building Department as his dream job.
“Because I think you touch everybody here in this department,” he said. “It’s a very results-oriented department, where we have a product and a service.
“Businesses depend on us. And having been in both the business arena and government, I think I’m sensitive enough to understand the importance of good customer service and getting our product and our services out quickly.”
Ford said he enjoys working with his employees, whom he described as some of the hardest-working people in the city.
“We have a saying in the building department, ‘Make it happen,’” he said. “And they strive for that.”
He enjoys the interaction with everyday citizens and developers, and said his department is the ground floor for the new Detroit.
“We’re open for business,” Ford said. “We’re here and we’re working hard to make it easier, make it more efficient, make it faster.”
The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department is located in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, 2 Woodward Ave., Ste. 401. Call (313) 224-2733 for any information needed.