ICYMI: New Reporting Details How Governor Shapiro’s Office of Transformation and Opportunity is Moving at the Speed of Business and Reforming the Commonwealth’s Permitting, Licensing, and Certification Processes

Since day one, Governor Shapiro has focused on creating economic opportunity for all and ensuring state government works effectively and efficiently for Pennsylvanians – and the OTO has transformed the Commonwealth’s licensing and permitting processes.


“We had this one permit with the DOT that was kind of stuck […] We were about to break ground. And as you can imagine, timelines and budgets are well connected. When we reached out to Ben’s office, it was a pretty quick turnaround.”

Harrisburg, PA – In its March issue, Philadelphia Magazine highlighted how Governor Shapiro’s Office of Transformation and Opportunity (OTO), led by Chief Transformation Officer Ben Kirshner, has become a one-stop-shop for businesses looking to grow in Pennsylvania and has worked to reignite our economy by improving the Commonwealth’s permitting, licensing, and certification processes.

During his first week in office, Governor Shapiro signed an Executive Order creating the Pennsylvania OTO and named Kirshner to the role of Chief Transformation Officer. Since its formation, OTO has helped to make state government move at the speed of business, spur economic growth, and create opportunity for businesses and workers.

Under Kirshner’s leadership, OTO has helped companies grow and invest in Pennsylvania, including Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia and Excelitas in Pittsburgh. OTO also worked in coordination with Commonwealth agencies, the Office of General Counsel, and the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience (CODE PA) to co-design and create PAyback – a first-in-the-nation money-back guarantee system for Pennsylvania workers and businesses to check their eligibility for a refund of their permit, license, or certification application fee and request a refund if they believe they are eligible. Since PAyback’s launch on November 1, 2023, there have been 33,000 visits to the site.

To learn more or to contact OTO, visit www.oto.pa.gov.

Read this new reporting about the Shapiro Administration’s commitment to transforming how Pennsylvania does business and to making government work more efficiently here, and see key excerpts below.

Philadelphia Magazine: Ben Kirshner’s Plan to Transform How Pa. Does Business

When Josh Shapiro was on the campaign trail for Pennsylvania’s governorship in 2022, he kept hearing stories like that one — about big and small businesses choosing to set up anywhere but the Keystone State. Companies like Intel, which in 2022 committed $20 billion to build microchip factories in Ohio. The largest ­private-sector investment in that state’s history, it’s projected to create 3,000 Intel jobs and 7,000 construction jobs and attract dozens of other companies.

While other states have boosted incentives to woo companies, Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s highest corporate tax rates and offers relatively meager funding to attract businesses.

“Pennsylvania spends seven or eight times less in terms of incentivizing companies than many of our neighboring states — specifically Ohio, which has a smaller population,” Rick Siger, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), points out to me.

And the deeply mundane problem of delayed permits and professional licenses has made everything just a little worse. Amid hospital staff shortages, more than half of the 12,000 nurses issued Pennsylvania licenses in 2021 had to wait three months or longer to get them — among the longest lags in America, according to an NPR investigation. Luke Bernstein, CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, tells me a family member was a teacher in Virginia who had trained in Pennsylvania, and when she moved back here, it took Pennsylvania four months to issue a teaching certificate. Permits from the Department of Environmental Protection can take years. Zombies seem nimbler than some of these agencies. Delays can mean uncertainty and postponed income for businesses and people. “Other states are using that to market against us,” Bernstein says. […]

Shapiro has a philosophy he calls “GSD,” for “Get shit done.“ His signature move as the new governor came when a chunk of I-95 collapsed last June and he led the effort to repair it in a mind-blowing 12 days, showing how quickly a motivated government can produce results — and just how big a hole in the road has to be to get some attention around here.

With so many businessfolk griping to him about bashing their heads against the state bureaucracy, Shapiro turned to Ben Kirshner, a tech entrepreneur from the Philly suburbs with whom he was friendly, and essentially said: Can I give these people your number? 

To start 2023, Shapiro appointed Kirshner­ the state’s Chief Transformation Officer, head of the newly created Office of Transformation and Opportunity (OTO). Kirshner would be a liaison between the business community and the state’s slow-walking agencies, working to unravel knots of red tape. His unit would support Siger’s DCED, which provides tax credits, loans and grants to lure companies here. The hope is that the OTO can compensate­ for Pennsylvania’s less-than-sterling financial handouts by at least making it easier for companies to set up. […]

Kirshner joined Shapiro’s transition team in 2022, helping him select personnel. “Toward the end of that,” Kirshner says, “he said to me, ‘You know, when I was campaigning, I met a lot of people in the business community, and I heard how Pennsylvania might not be the best place to do business. We’re not proactive. It’s hard to get permits. We don’t have the best incentives.’ People would complain to him about how Pennsylvania needs to do better.”

“I told Ben that I thought we needed a point person for folks who wanted to do business with the Commonwealth — one office they could come to to get answers, cut through the red tape, get a deal done,” Shapiro tells me after a ceremony to install a state Supreme Court judge. “What Ben brought is a private-sector, fast-paced mentality to the government — that aggressive mentality, our GSD approach to governing, our get-shit-done approach.” […]

Shapiro kicked off the transforming in 2023 with an executive order giving state agencies 90 days to document every type of permit, license and certification they issue — more than 2,400 in all. Some business-application reviews are lengthy for good reason, of course. PennDOT assesses traffic and other impacts. Environmental permits can involve public meetings and inspections, to keep our water less poison-y. The first major initiative in Kirshner’s office was working with agencies to identify whether each undue delay resulted from problems with staffing, technology, legislation or something else.

I try to get Kirshner to confess how painstaking it must have been to persuade entrenched civil servants to do that extra work to help the new guy look good, but he doesn’t bite.

“I was kind of shocked. I thought it was gonna be a lot harder,” he says. “We didn’t really get pushback, because we approached it in a way of like, ‘Hey, we want to help you.’ They were able to raise their hand and say, ‘I have a technology issue. It’s been bothering me for years.’ A lot of these agencies looked at the data and saw, ‘Oh my God, we can fix this.’ And they started fixing it.”

In July, the Department of Education announced it had reduced teacher-certification processing times from 10 to 15 weeks down to less than one. The Department of State cut the average processing time for business and corporate filings from eight weeks to three days. At an appropriations committee meeting last March, then-acting Secretary of Environmental Protection Rich Negrin acknowledged to state Senators: “I’ve heard those nightmare stories about a permit that took four years, about a permit that took seven years. That should never happen. … When we say your permit is deficient, and it’s repeatedly deficient over and over and over, at some point, that’s not your fault; it’s ours. We’re not being user-friendly.” 

Businesspeople appreciate having an entrepreneur in Harrisburg; it’s like going to the DMV and the guy taking your driver’s-license picture is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kirshner met with corporate site selectors, “learning from the companies that didn’t choose Pennsylvania in the past,” he says. “We talked to Intel, who famously chose Ohio. Where did Pennsylvania get knocked out of the competition? What was important to them?”

His unit became a sort of helpline for permit woes. Spark Therapeutics is building a $575 million Gene Therapy Innovation Center on Drexel’s campus, with some financial incentives from the state. Kirshner’s­ office helped solve an issue that threatened the start of the project. “We had this one permit with the DOT that was kind of stuck,” Spark CEO Ron Philip tells me. “We were about to break ground. And as you can imagine, timelines and budgets are well connected. When we reached out to Ben’s office, it was a pretty quick turnaround.”

I talk to Mike Cooley at the Provco Group, a commercial real estate company in Villanova that buys land and secures permits for sites where clients like Wawa, Starbucks and CVS want to build stores. As we speak, it becomes clear that permits have haunted Cooley’s existence. “We are investing literally hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy in the Commonwealth, and it’s been almost unappreciated by previous administrations,” he tells me. “I felt like it was just, ‘Take a number and get in line.’” He says this multiple times.

In October, Cooley was at a roundtable with Shapiro and saw an opportunity. He told the governor how awesome it was that Interstate I-95 was fixed in just 12 days. “It was a good segue into how ironic it is for me, a private business owner and developer, that it takes no less than 12 months, with extraordinary efforts, to obtain permits from our state,” Cooley says. “No exaggeration, less than 10 minutes after he left, I got a text message from Ben Kirshner. We arranged for a Zoom the next morning. And I literally got a call from PennDOT within days of that conversation.”

It seems the immovable object has budged. The corporate tax rate is falling, thanks to a move by the previous administration. Pennsylvania reached record low unemployment in 2023. The Shapiro administration says there’s been $1.2 billion in new private-sector investment, and it just issued the state’s first long-term economic development plan in 20 years. As I’m finishing my research, I hear about a photonics company, Excelitas, that’s decided to move its headquarters to Pittsburgh from the Boston area, with a plan to create 250 jobs in a high-tech district that’s helping Pittsburgh compensate for the decline of heavy industry. Excelitas CEO Ron Keating tells me Ohio floated much bigger financial incentives. “Ohio gave us a very high prelim number. Kind of shocking,” he says. But Shapiro, Kirshner and Siger convinced him the business climate in Pennsylvania would be better. “Ben’s a really sharp guy. I like him a lot,” Keating says.


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