In a year that asked more of government than ever before, the growing and dynamic market of companies working to serve the public sector were partners in innovation, and grew their businesses in the process.
From a distance, one might imagine a gruesome collision — the COVID-19 pandemic, unforeseeable and sudden, forced government to shut many of its doors while dealing with increased demand for services, massive budget hits and a need to adapt complicated, decades-old processes for modern consumption. One might imagine government sputtering, coughing and failing to meet the challenge.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, government offices at every level found ways to quickly change the way they did business — often leaning heavily on technology they either weren’t using before or were using very little. So many government agencies have stories of setting up remote work capabilities for thousands of workers at once, or adopting digital signatures over a weekend, or deploying an entirely new service far faster than they used to.
For six years now, the GovTech 100 list has presented companies that were helping government to pull itself forward. They’ve introduced new ideas, they’ve found better ways to handle business, and they’ve set the stage for government to prove people wrong when they snicker about inefficiency and ineptitude.
Before the pandemic, it was hard to see just how well the stage had been set. But many, many government agencies have found themselves doing things they didn’t expect to do for years, if ever.
These are the stories of four of the companies at the center of the gov tech response to the pandemic.
In the fires of crisis, ignorance is fast-burning fuel. And as society closed down at the beginning of the pandemic, there was plenty of misinformation and misunderstanding to go around.
Zencity, a startup that gathers sentiment and input from residents and feeds it to their government, found itself at the center of a new, sudden, urgent need to help the public sector tap into the public conversation. Among its existing local government clients, visits to websites and social media channels rose dramatically. The number of U.S. local governments using the company’s product doubled to about 170.
“It was, I think, a Friday or Saturday where we just saw usage data across our customers on the West Coast spike. As you know, the first high number of cases was starting to come in from Washington state, in that area, and we just saw unprecedented daily and hourly usage of our platform,” said Eyal Feder-Levy, the company’s CEO. “And that was the moment where it hit us that, OK, something is very different.”
Much changed. Public servants who used to check Zencity to identify conversation trends in their jurisdictions once or twice a week started hopping on every day — including weekends. Customers started signing contracts much more quickly, looking for a fast way to start measuring whether their outreach on topics such as mask mandates and business closures was registering with their communities.
“Because of the immediate need, we got calls from cities over a weekend saying, ‘Hey, the mayor wants this in the EOC by Monday morning’ — things like that we don’t see very often. [Usually clients] tend to be slower to contract,” Feder-Levy said.
The product helped governments get a handle on the myriad unforeseeable ways a far-reaching event like a pandemic could change daily life, he said. An example: One customer was in the midst of a major business district renovation involving replacing infrastructure. That would mean shutting off water to a neighborhood for a while. In normal times, that might’ve been fine. But during the pandemic, with people confined to their houses, it was a much more significant matter. A city manager found that aspect of the project being challenged through Zencity and took the matter to the local government, who changed the timeline to soften the impact.
Another change Feder-Levy noted: fewer pilot projects. As many a gov tech startup can attest, early business often involves pilot projects that turn into contracts. Zencity was no stranger to that game, but during the pandemic many more prospective clients were skipping that step and heading straight to the dotted line.
Will they still have need for it after the pandemic?
“A lot of cities and counties overnight became much more data-driven,” Feder-Levy said. “They review a report every week of case numbers and changes and people in quarantine. Those types of processes … they’re just great management processes and great engagement processes that hopefully will stay with us after the pandemic. The question is will these platforms know how to adapt to these new realities after COVID, and are these changes really being embedded, and are local governments feeling the value beyond just closing a hole for them? And I’m super optimistic about this, and I see that in our usage. All these governments who bought us for COVID-19 purposes use us today for other purposes — for public safety, for transportation, for sales tax [and] other things that it’s important to get input on.”
Even before the events of 2020 accelerated the transition from in-person to digital services, that change was heralded by Granicus. Formerly focused on software for managing government meetings, documents and citizen engagement, the company acquired the U.K.-based Firmstep in April 2019 and used its technology to launch govService, Granicus’ digital services platform, later that year. CEO Mark Hynes said he thought the shift to online services was inevitable in the U.S., based on what was happening across the pond.
“The U.K. is probably six to seven or more years ahead of the United States as it relates to digital transformation,” he said. “If you were to go to a website of a local government in the U.K., virtually 90 percent of the services that you would typically go to a city hall or another government office for today in the United States — all your permits, licenses, transactions, where you grab a form, fill it out, staple a check and hand it to an attendant — 90 to 100 percent of those services are all delivered online in the U.K.”
It turned out to be a fortuitous new direction for Granicus. When COVID-19 hit, Hynes said three tasks emerged for their customers: to create direct channels of reliable information, to keep government operating and serving people even with remote staff, and to enable governing bodies like city councils to make policy decisions even with chambers shuttered. For the first task, Granicus gave customers free access to its software tools for emails, texts and social media management to cut through a growing storm of misinformation. The company also started pre-packaging information about the virus for governments to share according to Web traffic and what citizens seemed most interested in.
Hynes said among the company’s 4,200 federal, state and local customers, websites saw hundreds to thousands of times more traffic than usual as public information offices were flooded with questions about safety measures, medical vulnerabilities and policies.
“What we were finding is that governments were the backstops of truth, the one source you can trust in these moments to get accurate and vital information,” he said.
Granicus saw use cases around the world for its new digital services. Hynes said the demands of speed and flexibility favored a platform that could build applications for digital services, rather than coming with separate, ready-made point solutions for every workflow. In Oklahoma, it took about a weekend for the company to help the state build an online portal for a specialized program that didn’t exist only months before — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which wound up processing close to 60,000 claims a week, compared to the 1,500 for traditional unemployment before COVID-19.
Hynes said that as with the digitization of shopping, banking and other tasks in people’s day-to-day lives, there was an inevitability about moving these services online, especially with advances in cloud and software development. But where digital automation or modernization of services used to be a second or third priority for Granicus customers, Hynes said, it has become a first priority. With this in mind, Granicus in October acquired another digital services company, Calytera, for its expertise in best practices in the space. Competitors invested heavily in digital services in 2020, too: CivicPlus announced a low-code tool in May for standing up digital services, Accela partnered with OpenCities in September on a no-code tool to stand up digital services, and Salesforce announced its first purpose-built licensing and permitting applications.
“Virtually every other service provider relationship has been digitized, and government will get there,” Hynes said. “It’s really a market adoption curve question, and COVID has bent that adoption curve up dramatically. It probably accelerated it by three, four, maybe even five years, and what it says to Granicus is, we need to move faster as a company.”
The other lesson Hynes took from the last several months was the value of collaboration. Whether it was connecting government customers to share best practices with each other, as Granicus did with Oklahoma and New York, or acquiring innovations from competitors, he saw more positive transformation in the gov tech space in a short amount of time than in many other industries.
“The ability to pull together communicators from the federal governments, state, local, the U.K. even, in a way that they could share best practices, in a high-velocity situation … was massive,” he said. “We made massive innovation leaps because we collaborated as an industry that I think are incredibly unique to us as a group … In our product road maps, we are now building capabilities for collaboration and sharing around best practices.”
Another case of being in the right market at the right time, Biobot Analytics had been working for years with state and local governments on culling data about opioid use from wastewater when, in February 2020, it became clear that a new public health crisis was about to take priority. The company’s Co-founder and President Newsha Ghaeli said early research revealed COVID-19 was shed in stool, and it wasn’t a leap for her to assume local governments would soon want ways to detect it and that Biobot could do so.
Partnering with research collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard School of Public Health to develop testing methods for COVID-19, Biobot Analytics was the first team in the U.S. to successfully detect the virus in wastewater, Ghaeli said.
“That’s when we knew that this data could potentially be very valuable to communities,” she said. “We didn’t know for sure, and that’s why we decided to put together a pro bono campaign to be able to test this hypothesis.”
In March, Biobot began shipping sampling kits and instructions at cost — about $120 — to wastewater treatment facilities that fill out an application, recommending that they take a couple samples a week and mail them back for analysis. Their target at the time was to have 100 communities sending them weekly samples, so they could learn how the virus behaves in wastewater, what data it could provide and if that could be helpful to decision-making. Quickly overwhelmed with interest, the campaign ran through the end of May and wound up with more than 400 sampling locations across the U.S. from about half that many agencies.
By plotting concentrations of the virus in wastewater over time, Ghaeli said her team realized the data tended to foreshadow clinical cases.
“We saw that pretty consistently, a spike in wastewater data would be followed by a spike in clinical cases, and that lead time ranged anywhere from five to 15 days,” she said. “We were able to learn a lot as well from working with communities and what was important to them during that time.”
Customers found different uses for the data. In New Castle County, Del., because they were sampling across a dozen locations, the government built a public-facing dashboard with a kind of “heat map” that helped them know how to prioritize and target mobile testing capacity. In Massachusetts, Cambridge Public Schools tracked three measurements in the community — virus concentration in wastewater, percent positive test rate and number of new clinical cases — and committed to remote learning if two out of three passed a certain threshold.
For Biobot, COVID-19 was a marketing opportunity to put its technology and data out there, but it was also a learning experience. Specifically, wastewater is a leading indicator of COVID, and rapid turnaround time is what makes the data useful. On June 1, the company started charging for its service, which allowed them to invest and improve their product to a point where Ghaeli anticipates the ability to produce same-day results soon.
“As an organization, we have now understood how important it was, both for us as a business but also just for the communities, that we were able to respond quickly. We’re aware that this might happen again. In two years’ time, something might emerge that overnight becomes the priority, and we always want to be responsive as a company, no matter how big we get,” she said. “So we’ve internally put organizational practices and processes in place to ensure that we never lose that dynamism that usually just small startups have.”
Besides the necessity of rapid results, Ghaeli said Biobot learned some of its most valuable collaborators, the ones whose insights lead to the most useful improvements, are its own customers.
“We’ve learned the value and the need to really listen to our customers and work in an iterative fashion, where we want to get data and information and product into the hands of people on front lines of whatever the problem is … and then hear from them what’s working, what’s not working,” she said. “For something as critical and dynamic as human health, I think that feedback loop will always be important.”
Driver’s licenses. Utility payments. Pet registration. Birth certificates. Property taxes. There are endless reasons a person might need to step into a government office. And in late March 2020, many of them closed their doors.
Overnight, digital services went from being a luxury to a necessity for many.
The companies that help government agencies put their services online — and there are many, ranging from NIC to ProudCity — suddenly found themselves responding to agencies who needed to move services online immediately.
One such company was PayIt, whose CEO John Thomson watched as demand for customers’ existing digital services spiked.
“When the pandemic hit and everyone went home, I think, you know, the cloud is always on. Our platform is always on. So we kept the lights on for our clients, and then we saw a big shift, or acceleration in the shift from walk-in, call-in or mail-in interactions with government to digital,” Thomson said. “And we saw clients — just three states without naming names — in April, one client [whose] digital revenue collection was up 54 percent year-over-year. Another was up 55 percent, and another was up 125 percent.”
Thomson underscored that the cloud has made things like this much simpler. It was built with sudden scaling up and down in mind, so it could handle such a demand spike. And it can often be simpler and faster to implement, so governments could move those various permitting, licensing, payment and form processes online quickly.
“We were putting new services into the cloud in hours for our clients during the pandemic because the offices were shut down, and they needed to get those services online,” he said. “If you’ve got sort of old, custom tech that’s on-prem or you’ve just moved it to your cloud and you have to go deploy and it takes months to do that, you’re just in a different place to be able to serve your clients in this market.”
Thomson said being cloud-native — his company was founded in 2013 — also helped the company onboard new customers and deploy their services quickly.
One somewhat unresolved question is how much of it will last. That is, should society get more or less “back to normal,” will the governments that suddenly adopted digital services keep using them at the same rate, or will they revert to the old ways?
On that front, Thomson is optimistic.
“I think [the pandemic] really just put a finer point on the need to embrace the cloud and cloud-native platforms and kind of this move to Netflix away from Blockbuster, in a really oversimplified explanation,” he said.
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.