There is a metaphorical chasm at the heart of civic tech. Standing on one side of the divide are municipal and state governments, anxious to enhance digital services, reduce costs, bolster efficiency, and, ultimately, serve the public better. On the other side, straining to see what’s across, are tech startups that have often done in the private sector exactly what the governments want so badly to accomplish. Now, if only the two sides could meet.
Thoughts about what causes this disconnect are frequent and diverse — inadvertently confusing procurement processes, challenges of scale that make civic tech infeasible for all but giant companies, the lucrative allure of private-sector startup success — but those standing at the edge agree on one thing: There must be a way to cross.
The stakeholders are certain of this because there are, in fact, companies making the leap, and there are governments developing programs that function as a crude rope ladder, pulling startups over after they try to reach. These efforts increasingly fuel hopes that a mutually beneficial bridge can be built, one that enables private-sector expertise to join city and state governments permanently.
Entrepreneurs that have crossed this gap have been richly rewarded, both financially and spiritually, and the governments that have hauled them over have built better digital services that impact real people’s lives. Yet the question remains: How can they do a better job of working together to cross this divide?
Binti began life in 2014 as a startup making software to ease the organizational burdens of private adoption processes. For one of the company’s co-founders, Felicia Curcuru, this was personal work — her sister had adopted two children a decade prior.
Through Binti, Curcuru and Co-Founder Gabe Kopley worked to change this. They created a TurboTax-esque software that removed hassles for would-be parents, and their company was successful. Binti, however, wanted to do more.
Around this time, Curcuru began volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate, visiting the same foster child each week and serving as her voice during court hearings every six months or so. Like many burgeoning tech companies, Binti is based in San Francisco, where rising mean income and subsequent demographic shifts make it difficult for the county government to find foster parents. Curcuru became aware that the foster system where she lived could be improved, and she thought the lessons her startup had learned facilitating private adoptions could help.
The question then was how does one turn good intentions and tech-sector experience into actual government work that benefits real people?
“We had interest in beginning to work in foster care,” she said, “but, to be honest, it was a little bit intimidating. I’d never worked with government, I’d never worked in government. How do you know who to reach out to? How do you begin that? From the outside, procurement is really challenging. It was like a black box.”
Curcuru and Binti needed a bridge across the civic tech chasm, and San Francisco built them one. In 2014, the same year Binti began its work in the private sector, the city launched a program called Startup in Residence (STiR). As chief innovation officer for the tech-heavy city and county of San Francisco, Jay Nath knew the benefits that cooperation between the public and private sectors could reap, and his awareness led to STiR.
“One of the insights that we had is we have a number of challenges and pain points that entrepreneurs have no visibility into,” said Nath. “For that reason, you often see companies working on things they experience. Buses being late, voting issues, etc., but not really the inner workings of governments. We went with an idea to share some of the needs we have that the technology marketplace really hasn’t addressed.”
The program embeds startups inside city or county departments for 16 weeks, where they work unpaid on a pilot basis alongside agency staff and develop solutions to problems government workers face each day. For Binti, this meant joining with San Francisco Human Services, where the company learned that social workers were evaluating prospective foster parents with a single Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that had as many as 70 columns of information per applicant and was nearly impossible to track. Unwieldy and inefficient, the cluttered spreadsheet process was error-prone, and it was causing social workers to spend too much of their time getting people through the process.
Binti built software to modernize this, software that officials estimate saves social workers 40 to 60 percent of the time they used to spend evaluating applicants. The benefits for Binti have been astounding as well. With its work for San Francisco as a reference, the company is now working with 21 of the 58 counties in California, and it’s also in discussions with other states.
STiR has grown its reach, too, evolving from a purely San Francisco-based program in 2014, to a regional initiative in 2016 and 2017 with embedded startups in Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento city governments.
Curcuru said the unpaid pilot structure of STiR gave her company invaluable flexibility. If Binti had been signed on a contract, staff members would have had to know in advance what they were going to build. The startup team, however, didn’t know what the foster-care system needed until it shadowed workers.
Of course, other city, county and state governments might have less of a geographical head-start in tech than San Francisco does when attempting to connect with the startup world. It’s this mix of flexibility and education that is found at the heart of the most promising efforts.
To maintain the flexibility that’s so crucial in fostering civic tech innovation, a prolonged and deep effort to create a welcoming culture is key. This thinking has enabled city governments in places like Chattanooga, Tenn., or Kansas City, Mo., to make progress bridging the public-private gap.
Chris Crosby is a veteran of the tech sector, and an architect of three software companies, including most recently Xaqt, which builds smart city data and analytics platforms. Basically, Xaqt comes into local governments, takes existing data sets and aligns them with smart city programs to bolster efficiency throughout municipal tech efforts. About a year ago, Crosby’s company began working with Kansas City.
Crosby points to stakeholder buy-in as one of the most important factors in determining whether tech startups will be successful building tools for city government, and that, he said, starts with culture. Kansas City had an existing office of innovation when Crosby and Xaqt began working there, which made it easy to bring the company into city hall a few days a week.
“We’re sort of merging the mindset and brain share around what the reality of city hall looks like every day to people who have to worry about filling potholes or are the lights turned on, those types of things,” said Crosby. “So we’ve been able to customize our platform and tools in such a way that addresses acute pain points for the city.”
When building software, the company has ensured throughout the process that city workers will actually use it once it’s complete. The lessons Xaqt learned from Kansas City have subsequently enabled the company to scale out its software to work with St. Louis. Xaqt is also close to contracts with four other municipal governments. Crosby said that Kansas City — which in addition to a culture of innovation also has procurement processes in place that allow things like pilots with startups — “has really become a pilot and a proving ground” for Xaqt and the civic tech solutions it has to offer.
One way that Kansas City accomplished this was through an Innovation Partnership Program that’s now in its third year — it’s an initiative that has a number of similarities with San Francisco’s STiR. Kansas City’s program reaches out to the startup community and challenges it to come to the city with proposals. There’s a 30-day application process, seven to 12 companies are selected and then they do a pilot at no cost to the city for 90 days. Afterward, the agency that a participant has worked with can either secure a contract, demo its pilot elsewhere, or continue to refine it. Of the eight participants in last year’s program, two secured contracts with Kansas City.
Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer of Kansas City, said that in addition to installing a culture that’s friendly to startups, another key is making the RFP process easier for companies to navigate. Like many in government seeking to broaden the quantity and quality of the vendors they work with, Bennett admitted that the process can be frustrating. Often, RFPs for tech projects only attract responses from the same handful of megacompanies, which use similar consulting processes that rarely surprise with ideas.
There have been efforts to simplify RFPs for the uninitiated, to be sure. In fact, STiR has made its application process an RFP, a move that San Francisco’s CIO Nath said may have inadvertently led to a world record, when the program attracted 17 RFPs in parallel. However, Bennett said that even if the obstacle of the RFP is mitigated, challenges remain.
Kansas City, for example, has 95,000 street lights, and no idea-generating startup can handle that sort of scale. Learning to facilitate cooperation among two private entities to solve a public-sector issue is also important for governments looking to leverage talent from startups.
“When you put together a gumbo that includes all of these firms with the city, you come up with something where the citizens win, and that’s our purpose for existence as a city government,” Bennett said.
During winter in New York City, apartment dwellers often must rely on landlords to set the heat for buildings. There are, of course, regulations that require property owners to maintain temperature minimums, but when the rules are broken, finding tangible proof is difficult, if not impossible.
Big Apps is a large, comprehensive program filled with workshops, mentorship pairings and opportunities for collaboration, and it’s unique for a few reasons: It’s older than other startup collaboration efforts with a history of seven years, it evolved from an incentivized campaign to enhance open data, and its aspirations have long been to diversify New York’s economy. For Big Apps, improving government efficiency and the lives of New Yorkers has become a more prominent goal as the program evolved.
Perhaps the most relevant characteristic of Big Apps, as it applies to the gap between governments and startups, is that the program seeks to increasingly narrow the problems it sets before participating technologists and startups, said Kate Daly, senior vice president of initiatives at the NYCEDC.
“Narrowing the focus has been very successful because it allows people to come together in a much more targeted way,” said Daly.
The decision to narrow the focus is the result of many years of running Big Apps and learning from past years.
In short, bridging the gap between startups and governments is a process that requires a commitment to overcoming institutional challenges and working through necessary adjustments along the way. It’s not an easy road. But as these jurisdictions demonstrate, there is hope for those interested in bringing new ideas and tech innovations into government, provided the culture is amenable.
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.