Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. on Sept. 16 to include three more months of business license data from Long Beach, Calif.
A restaurateur in Southern California might need as many as 26 licenses and permits before they can start serving food. That means filling out the same information on multiple forms. It means dealing with myriad agencies and government representatives. It means days and days, or even weeks of time spent on regulation.
So two Southern California cities — and a whole host of other governments nationwide — are trying to smooth out the process with technology. On Sept. 14, Los Angeles launched an open source business portal based on San Francisco’s own website, and at the beginning of October Long Beach plans to officially launch its own.
Welcome to the age of the business portal. Governments in California, Nevada, Utah, Indiana, Ohio and more have all set up places to help guide businesses through the often complex system of commercial regulation that exists at all levels of government.
The idea for Los Angeles and Long Beach was to help entrepreneurs through all steps of the process — before, during and after launching their enterprises. They can look for funding opportunities, figure out which forms they’ll need from which agencies and then learn how to market and grow after they’ve opened their doors.
“What we heard from businesses when we started down this path is that it’s often hard for them to even know where to begin,” said Amanda Daflos, director of Los Angeles' innovation team.
It's a problem that becomes even harder when you add small, technology-enabled businesses into the mix.
“We need to provide resources now to help them succeed if we want economic growth," said John Keisler, Long Beach's innovation team director. "We can’t rely on big employers that hire 10,000 people. There are going to be a lot more smaller employers that can’t navigate this process on their own.”
So both governments began by asking established businesses about their journey through the process. Embracing the concept of user-centered design, both plotted out a map of the steps that entrepreneurs in different areas of business went through en route to success and used that as a guide — as opposed to beginning with what the government’s needs were.
“The goal is that, if they’re better prepared, that they would have a quicker path to approval,” Keisler said.
That’s one metric the cities can use to see how successful their portals will be. According to Keisler, the average time it took for a business to get final approval to operate in Long Beach in the past year was more than 24 days — though that fluctuated based on the type of business. He wants to watch that drop to 10-12 days.
But that’s not all. The two cities also will be watching the number of businesses opening up, the number of people using the portal, the places in the process that users take the longest to get through and how long the businesses stay open after starting.
There are other benefits. Keisler thinks the portals could help out city staff by shifting the work of warm bodies to a system where users are able to help themselves, giving those employees the ability to focus on other work. It will also mean that users will be able to help themselves 24/7. No more relying on city hall’s business hours.
But as many benefits as Keisler and Daflos see in the portals, they aren’t quite one-stop shops for entrepreneurs just yet. They can help people navigate the system and build a smarter business, but they face some big obstacles in the way of helping business owners.
For example, many business portals rely on showing users what they need to do, as opposed to allowing users to do them in one place. If an entrepreneur needs a permit to serve alcohol, they won’t necessarily be able to do it through the business portal. The portal would just tell them where they need to go to get that permit.
Some states have achieved a measure of integration in their portals. But it’s a lot trickier to build such a system than it might seem, Keisler said.
“One methodology would be to actually build an interface between a single login profile and the back end … permitting database,” he said. “We’re not doing that, because that alone — writing an interface like that, and just creating a nicer user interface on the front that helps people to navigate but then is connected with the database and interacting with that system — that would be another phase of development that would take a lot longer.”
And many of those databases and back-end systems were built on older, siloed technology that often relies on proprietary code from vendors.
“[The vendors] own all the code in their database and they don’t allow developers to go in and monkey around,” he said.
So developing a system where a user is able to register with many agencies at once could mean going to each individual agency along the business registration process and integrating their technology. It could take a long time and a lot of resources. Keisler and Daflos both want to explore that idea in the future.
But the business portals are a first step.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.