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Bratton Riley's Long Road to Starting a Gov Tech Company

For Bratton Riley, founder of chat software firm Citibot, it helps to basically grow up in city hall because your dad was one of America's longest-serving mayors. A monstrous hurricane can also teach a lesson or two.

Bratton Riley, Citibot CEO and founder
Citibot
Brennan Wesley
Innovation comes from all sources.

For Bratton Riley, it was his dad and Hurricane Hugo that helped set the stage for his ongoing work as founder and CEO of a young government technology company in South Carolina — one of the growing number of businesses dedicated to improving citizen engagement in this digital and mobile age.

Riley, 48, is the son of former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who held office from 1975 to 2016. Over his 10 terms, his son Bratton, as he put it, “grew up in city hall, and that passion led to my company.”

That six-year-old company, Citibot, offers chat technology that local governments can offer callers to 311 services, while also providing an example of how positive civic experiences can lead to innovation decades later.

Citibot has six employees and competes not only in the increasingly hot gov tech space — where mergers, acquisitions and investments are happening at a quick pace — but in a niche that has earned more popularity during the pandemic.

QUICK GRATIFICATION


Such technology can help residents reach the right officials or websites for a variety of issues, such as trash pickup requests, and even connect 311 calls with live officials. The value proposition, according to Riley, is quick service.

“Residents get that instant gratification,” he told Government Technology. “We all like that.”

His software-as-a-service company has about 30 active customers, with Oakland, Calif., among the newer clients going through onboarding.

In Louisiana, the Orleans Parish Communication District uses a version of the Citibot tool branded as “JAZZ” — to Riley, branding should reflect local culture to encourage use. That agency, located in New Orleans, installed the chat technology during the pandemic as nonemergency call volume jumped by 350 percent, earning local recognition in an area that is familiar not only with COVID-19 but severe hurricanes as well, including Ida in 2021.

HURRICANE RESPONSE


Indeed, it was a hurricane in 1989 that helped cement the idea of going into gov tech for Riley. Hugo stands as among the most destructive storms to hit the United States, and Riley’s father was in the thick of the emergency response, encouraging residents to evacuate and then helping with recovery efforts.

“I watched him use every opportunity with the media to tell the residents to evacuate their homes, which resulted in a very low death count resulting from the storm — especially in a pre-Internet world,” Riley recalled. “I saw how important it was to make sure that the local government was connecting to the poorer communities through these difficult times.”

As Riley told it — and the lengthy tenure of his dad would seem to support — the mayor during that tense time won over the trust of residents and found ways to connect with them.

“This trust and equitable connectivity were the inspiration for Citibot,” Riley said. “Our question was: Can we use accessible and equity-based communication channels and AI chat technology to scale trust building between governments and residents?”

MORE COMPETITION


While Riley would tell you that the technology he sells is still not that common among local governments, recent developments do at least show that Citibot is not alone in its niche, and that Riley faces stiffening competition in this particular area of citizen engagement software.

One recent example comes from Boston.

There, officials launched an SMS chatbot that connects residents in need of food to services and resources. The technology is the work of the Mayor’s Office of Food Access and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which is a civic research and design team.

Research strongly suggests that the field will become more competitive as the technology matures and more state and local governments find success with communicating with residents via chatbots. Riley and others in this field face hard work as they strive to sign up more clients and stand out from the pack.

MAYOR'S SHADOW


Even so, Riley points to advantages that his company has in the chat space — advantages that come at least in part from his upbringing and experience around local government.

In fact, that is part of the Citibot pitch.

“From a market standpoint, our success comes from understanding government and the amazing public servants we get to work with, both on the communications and management levels in government,” Riley said. “On the management side, we help governments save time and money through integrating into their CRMs and their tech ecosystem. We are an enterprise chat system and not a one-off chat system that’s an add-on to other systems.”

For all those city hall experiences, though, Riley took his time getting into the gov tech space — evidence that some advantages can have downsides if not handled in the right way.

Before starting Citibot he spent 13 years in the international maritime shipping and port terminal industry. His father’s work might have inspired him, Riley said, but he doesn’t necessarily operate in the former mayor’s shadow.

“I spent some of my career intentionally steering clear of his world out of respect for him and not wanting to personally try and benefit from the amazing name he built for himself,” Riley said. “Now, I am so honored to be picking up the baton from him in some ways because we get to help cities and governments around the country take care of their residents.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.