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Accela, OpenCities Partner on No-Code Digital Services Tool

In the age of COVID-19, two gov tech firms have partnered on a new software product to meet growing demands for digital services that are user-friendly, quick to stand up and easy to maintain.

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Seeing a growing demand for digital services across the board, two major players in the digital government space, Accela and OpenCities, have joined forces on a new no-code platform for state and local governments to create more integrated, user-friendly websites and forms.

Today, the pair is announcing Premium Citizen Experience, a software-as-a-service product that marries the expertise of both companies. Website-building functions come from OpenCities, which has been working on making government websites more user-friendly and service-oriented for years, and those will connect with Accela’s growing suite of licensing and permitting tools on the back end. The goal of the partnership is to help governments do several things quickly in-house instead of hiring software engineers to do it for them: create online portals for various services, make them consistent and integrated with requisite documents and back-end processes, make them navigable and understandable to citizens, and modify them in the future to comply with any new policies or regulations that come along.

Accela VP of Product Management Amber D’Ottavio said as more and more people are using online versions of paper processes — for business or rental licenses, fire permits, inspection permits, et cetera — there’s a growing expectation that government agencies make them accessible and understandable, and frankly, some of them are inherently complicated. She gave the example of opening a restaurant, for which one would need to interact with several agencies and apply for a business license, a liquor license, a facility or food permit, maybe a permit for remodeling and so on. But if the citizen had never done this before, how do they know where to start? Where do they go, what are the steps, how long does it take, how much will it cost? A website might answer these questions, but different departments usually have their own portals and forms.

“A lot of government websites were very fragmented, so the information was in different places,” D’Ottavio said. “They may have several back-end systems that handle transactions similar to Accela, but on the front end, trying to access them, the user would get redirected. Sometimes they weren’t even on the website. You would actually access them from a different source.”

That’s where the Premium Citizen Experience comes in, and why Accela partnered with a company whose purview is helping governments build websites that clarify this information, and standardize all the various forms and websites involved. Luke Norris, managing director of strategy and government relations at OpenCities, said the Australian company has been in business for about 10 years, powers the websites of about one in five local governments in Australia, and has helped build websites for American cities like Orlando, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Miami since starting business in the U.S. in 2016.

Norris said one of the key challenges with citizen-government interactions today is that many of them start on Google.

“Google would often search and drop them at a point in the website that gives them the launching-off point to Accela, but it didn’t actually have all of the context that they needed to start permitting with Accela,” he said. “What OpenCities does on the front end of that is, as a resident comes into the website, they have the ability to search for whatever they’re looking for, using this government taxonomy that turns resident lingo into government speak so the resident can find what they’re looking for.”

That means when a citizen uses a website built with OpenCities, or now the Premium Citizen Experience, they can type in a simple inquiry or command and find step-by-step instructions for what they need to do — online, in person, by phone or by mail. The site then walks them through an eligibility screening process.

“This helps take out the frustration of people starting to do a sign permit, or starting to do a pool permit, and realizing that they’re not even eligible because they haven’t even done an excavation permit first,” Norris said. “So you’re creating the step-by-step, but also the pre-qualification capability.”

For two companies with deep roots in their respective markets, the impetus for the Premium Citizen Experience, for partnership, is manifold. The new product sits at a cross-section of recent gov tech trends: digital services, software-as-a-service, low-code and no-code environments, user-centered design and forward compatibility, to name a few.

According to D’Ottavio and Norris, it’s an attempt to meet the demands of a new era brought on by COVID-19. They know that now and in the future, making services more accessible will include minimizing the need to physically walk into a government building and talk to someone. They know their customers face growing expectations to do this. And their company’s joint news release mentions a 2020 report by the National League of Cities that predicts local governments in the U.S. will lose $360 billion in revenue over the next three years, so the need to do things quickly and cheaply in-house is likely to increase.

This is writing on the wall that other companies appear to have noticed, too. Granicus launched a new digital services platform in October 2019, and CivicPlus announced a new low-code software tool for creating digital service portals in May 2020.

Speaking to Government Technology’s ICYMI video series this week, the city of San Antonio’s chief technology officer, Kevin Goodwin, differentiated the Premium Citizen Experience from those two, somewhat, in that it offers the user more control over design, and the ability to make tweaks themselves. He said San Antonio was “on the road to no-code” before COVID-19, but the last few months have accelerated the transition.

“We had to respond quickly using a variety of low-code technologies, among them OpenCities, to be a major part of our response and recovery efforts within the city. It’s definitely something that has made us deliver better, faster,” he said. “We found that that’s where these two technologies really come together for us … People that are coming to the city because they need help with something, or they need information on something, it’s because they’re in some kind of a crisis situation, and being able to provide an excellent experience for them while they deal with the trauma is really helping us to provide better services.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.