Breaking: Nutter taps Burns to head L&I

July 18
By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia’s new L&I Commissioner says change is coming – and much of it will be focused on customer service.

Frances Burns, who starts her new job as Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections on Aug. 18, said Friday that she will not only seek feedback from developers, homeowners, business people and others who come to L&I, but use what they say to rate her department’s performance – she might even put out comment cards like the ones found at restaurants.

“We want to try and get customer feedback as soon as possible, and see a year from now, how do we look in comparison,” Burns said.

“We want to hear that they received friendly service, they knew where to enter the department, they knew what they needed to do to get their permit or license or their violation resolved,” she said hours after Mayor Michael Nutter announced her appointment. “I want to hear, ‘It was easy, it was simple, I was satisfied, and I know I’m in compliance.’ We are going to hold ourselves accountable.”

Burns, 32, has been serving as the executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation. Prior to that, she had a high-ranking position within L&I, the city department responsible for inspecting properties and ensuring they comply with city codes, issuing licenses, permits and certificates, and handling quality of life and nuisance issues. Burns was deputy commissioner for administration from June 2004 to October 2007.

When Nutter was running for Mayor, he famously promised to “blow up” L&I, an agency that been criticized for being obtuse, confusing and the opposite of user-friendly.

When asked whether her history with L&I would hinder or help her reform efforts, Burns did not hesitate.

“It will absolutely be beneficial. Folks there saw me, and saw how I conducted myself. They know what to expect from day one when I start,” she said. “We’re going to strive for excellence, and they’ve seen and felt that push before from me, this is just on a larger scale.”

Doug Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said there were three primary reasons why Burns was chosen: She knows the department, she has a vision that puts customer service as the guiding principal for the new L&I, and she has the full confidence of the mayor.
Oliver said her past work with the department would not hamper her efforts – or the administration’s – to retool L&I.
“I think the mayor has been clear that broad change needs to occur at L&I, but he has never suggested that having worked there before is problematic,” Oliver said. “She is someone who both knows the department and clearly understands it needs to go in a new direction.”

Burns makes it clear that L&I has been doing some things right. There are some very talented people working there already, and “we will build upon their strength,” she said. Burns will ask them for ideas on how to improve the department.

Nutter said Friday that Burns’ first big step will be to figure out what’s been wrong.

“I have asked Frances to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the Department and to propose a restructuring that will be consistent with our overall goal of bringing predictability to the planning and permitting processes,” Nutter said in a written statement.  “Frances knows this department, she has a clear vision for its future, and she is highly capable of making the changes that we need.”

The improved customer service is an over-arching goal, Burns said. The review will help her ferret out the details. There will be “mini project plans” tailored to improving each unit within L&I, she said.

The observations necessary to figure out how to fix each department could take a few months, others could take a year, she said. Some changes will be made relatively quickly, others will take more time, and fine-tuning is likely to go on and on.

Some changes are already obvious, though.  The department has already started looking at the many, many categories of licenses it offers – more than 100 – in hopes of shrinking that number.

In addition to L&I’s obvious role in protecting health and safety, it also has a key role in economic development, Burns said. The Department will be paying more attention to its role in the development process, and its link with the Commerce Department and Planning, she said.

Nutter has made new appointments in every department that touches on planning and development, and he recently called for a more powerful Planning Commission. How this will impact L&I isn’t completely clear yet, Burns said, “but there is a commitment to partnerships between departments, and thoughtful planning.”

Burns said the mayor and his deputies and key staff are “not just putting me out on an island and saying, ‘go and fix this place.’ They are saying, ‘we’re going to stand with you.'”

Burns said she wanted the job because “the support is there from an administration that is focusing on the right approach and the right perspective. This is an opportunity to work with good people and make a difference.”

In her former role as deputy commissioner for administration, Burns was in charge of the budget, the human resources and information technology units, and administrative support for various appeal boards, including the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Burns had previously served as assistant managing director in the Office of the Managing Director from June 2002 to June 2004 and as assistant budget director in the Office of Budget and Program Evaluation from December 2000 to June 2002.  Prior to her work with the city, she was the director of capital analysis and operations at the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.  She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Masters of Public Administration, both from Villanova University.

Burns will replace John Elfrey at the L&I helm. Elfrey, who had been acting commissioner since January, will now be working with Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities, Rina Cutler.

Contact the reporter at


WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal