Have you ever bought furniture from IKEA? It’s actually furniture in a box. They sell wood pieces and connectors neatly packed in a box or two, and you put everything together. When you open the box, the first thing you look for is the instruction booklet, because that is what you expect to see, and need to make sense of all the pieces. The instructions show in graphic detail each of the steps needed to build your piece of furniture.

Could you imagine putting all those pieces together without instructions? Or, imagine if IKEA included a 1-800 number with a note: “Good luck, give us a call if you get stuck.” While it may be possible to eventually figure out where all the pieces go, it would be an absolutely frustrating experience with countless missteps. And could you imagine the number of people IKEA would need to hire to answer all of those questions?

This is exactly what local governments do with their zoning regulations. There are no instructions or any other kind of upfront assistance to help people navigate the pages of information to find what they need.

Zoning regulations need to be written to pass legal muster. They must also address a myriad of issues that apply to a full range of development projects from the simple (adding a shed in the backyard) to the complex (developing a 40-acre mixed use project). Given the breadth and depth of topics that need to be covered, the number of pages in a zoning code could number in the hundreds.

What’s frustrating for property owners is not knowing where to find the information they need to move ahead with a project. There are no instructions.

Where does a person start? Do you look at the zoning map first, or do you review the table of contents or search for a keyword? What keyword would you start with?

Local planning offices don’t expect most people to know how to find the information they need; they expect to get telephone calls from realtors, builders, real estate appraisers, owners, etc. Some large departments even have a person or a team of people whose primary focus is answering questions. Regardless of size, cities spend an inordinate amount of time answering basic zoning questions.

“What’s my zoning? What are the setbacks? Can I build this or that? What approvals are needed?”

Unfortunately, when people pick up the phone to call their local zoning office, they are already experiencing some level of frustration. Perhaps they tried unsuccessfully to figure things out on their own. Perhaps they are having a hard time contacting the right person who can answer their question; all the while wondering why they need to do this in the first place.

From time to time, we hear politicians and others saying that government should be run like a business. In response, we hear government officials saying government isn’t a business.

How does a successful business, like IKEA, treat their customers? We can apply some of those basic principles to how zoning rules are drafted and how zoning, as a service, is delivered to the public.

If cities adopt zoning rules to promote the public good, why do we make it so difficult for the public?

Our collective challenge is to figure out what we can do to make it easier for the public to understand the who, what, where, and how of local zoning regulations. Taking it one step further, we could also do a better job of explaining the why as well.

We started out talking about IKEA and their successful business model. They know how to treat their customers and structure their products and services around people.

Its time for local governments to rise to the challenge and focus on the public and their needs and expectations.