What would happen if governments consistently put technology into real-life situations before buying it?
That’s the question at the core of a new Silicon Valley startup called UrbanLeap. The company, a little less than a year old, is putting together a cloud-based platform for government — especially local government — to pilot-test products and services.
It appears to be one of the first, if not the first, such product on the market. And as UrbanLeap is going through the process of signing its first few customers, it has the attention of a few big-name believers in the space where local government meets technology.
Those names would be Maury Blackman, the long-time Accela chief executive officer who has turned his attentions toward investing, as well as Nate Levine, the former co-founder of data and performance company OpenGov. Both have signed on as investors and advisers.
Then there’s Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer and chief technology officer of Palo Alto, who heavily influenced company co-founders Arik Bronshtein and Erez Druk to head in the direction from the early days of the company.
“I think it will become obvious that this is a really big market and a completely unmet market,” said Reichental, whose city is in the process of becoming one of the very first to enter into a paid contract with UrbanLeap.
UrbanLeap’s product, as of now, is built around the core focus of providing a pathway for governments to successfully test out new things. That could mean trying out a new process internally or working with third-party vendors to see how their technology works.
The platform can generate a template-based legal contract to run pilot projects on and send out invitations to companies asking them to participate in those pilots. It gives both sides a way to set goals and define how to measure progress on those goals during the pilot project; creates data visualizations to represent progress on those goals; and walks the participants through the five stages of a pilot: discovery and prioritizing, planning, contracting, tracking and evaluating.
The idea is that government should have an idea of how likely something is to meet their needs before they buy it.
“We make it very clear if this is something that is risky or something that would have a medium benefit or something that is amazing and you should scale it out,” said Druk, UrbanLeap’s chief technology officer and co-founder.
Today, the standard approach for a government to buy new technology is to write a request for proposals that seeks to specify what it needs and what the requirements of a system should be. That procurement process is designed to create competition among vendors, lower prices and reduce the amount of risk that the government takes on.
And it’s become something that people on all sides of the process tend to approach with hesitation, antipathy or a resigned feeling that the resulting system won’t work. Many in government IT and the technology companies that serve them blame the procurement process for taking too long, sweeping up too much work into unwieldy mega-projects and failing to design for users.
Druk and Bronshtein have seen that firsthand. After leaving their jobs at Facebook and the retailer technology provider Placer, respectively, they embarked on a user research journey. For about three months in 2017, Bronshtein and Druk spoke with more than 100 people who deal with the government procurement process.
“Both sides, the government and vendor, were complaining about the process,” said Bronshtein, UrbanLeap’s chief executive officer and co-founder.
There have been increasing efforts to change that status quo. In California, for example, the state government has broken up a project to create a new child welfare system into chunks, asking vendors to test and iterate as they go.
UrbanLeap is targeting an even earlier stage in the process. Before procurement, government could use their product to try out technology and decide what they actually want and get a better idea of how it should work.
Especially for smaller, resource-strapped local governments, Reichental thinks the software will make it easier to try out new things. When he first started his job with Palo Alto, he said he ran into a lot of barriers with trying out new technology and evaluating vendors.
“Every time I was approached by an interesting vendor, we had to basically start from scratch. We had to figure out what we were going to do, figure out the paperwork, the metrics, the costs,” he said.
UrbanLeap is meant to streamline that process and cut down on redundant steps.
But he’s cautioned Bronshtein and Druk that they aren’t just selling software to government. They’re pitching a culture change.
For that reason, he thinks the company will need to invest heavily in customer success: training, onboarding and getting cities to really commit to the idea of using it regularly.
Still, he thinks the company has a bright future ahead of them. A big part of that is the sheer size of their market. Buying technology is something pretty much every government does. And there are a lot of governments out there.
“I’m optimistic,” Reichental said. “I think city managers do know about this, they do know how to do it, but they don’t know if there’s a tool to help.”