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San Francisco Supports Startup Economy With Simplified Business Portal

In San Francisco's new business portal, launched in November, the citizen is made central to the business formation process -- not the government.

by / January 12, 2015

Starting a new business is a tortuous journey of paperwork and legalese, a counterproductive system for any city that strives to encourage economic development.

But some cities are changing this, and San Francisco is among them -- in November, the city launched the San Francisco Business Portal (SFBP), and is the municipality’s first step toward easing the process of creating a new business.

The portal, created by Mayor Ed Lee, the Department of Technology, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the Office of Small Business, along with local design firm Tomorrow Partners, is exemplary of the city’s new approach of launching successful, citizen-facing projects, said city CIO Miguel Gamiño. And in a press release following the portal’s launch, Lee said small businesses are the “heart and soul” of the city, and that their success is bound to the city’s success, which is why programs like this are so important.

Just under a year in the making, the new website makes all documentation necessary for starting a new business in San Francisco easy to access, and is accompanied by instructions designed for consumption by regular people. Rather than putting the burden of creation and planning entirely on the shoulders of the citizen, SFBP includes starter kits, guides for different types of businesses, and every document a citizen might need to legitimize a business. One of the most important things the portal does is show the potential business owner what the entire process looks like, said Jane Gong, program director at the Department of Technology.

The permitting process is complex, Gong said, adding that eventually it should be streamlined. In the meantime, however, it’s the government’s job to serve as a guide through the labyrinth that it has created. The portal provides clear, direct steps that people can take so they know exactly what they need to do to start and complete the various permit and license applications the city requires, Gong said.

The portal was built on Drupal and developed with an initial total funding of $657,000. The team did not need to hire new staff to keep the portal’s information current, but Gong said she and her team do a lot of ongoing work in that area. Keeping the information accurate is an important component of the city's evolving strategy in how it deals with constituents, Gong explained.

Human-centered design firm Tomorrow Partners was hired to ensure that the citizen was made central to the business formation process -- not the government.

“You’ve probably looked at other government websites and, traditionally, it’s a lot of legalese that’s slapped together," said Gong. "Oftentimes trying to dig through all that information takes a lot of searching through interior pages, and takes a lot of time to find exactly what you need. What we learned is it’s really important to turn this whole experience around and treat our constituents as customers. And having that human-centered design approach, having that customer-centric approach, it’s really a different way of thinking about delivering services.”

In developing the portal, the team worked with all departments involved with the business formation process -- and real businesses -- in every stage of the business cycle to ensure their presentation was informed by practical fact. They also looked to those who had already done what they were attempting to do, Gong said, adding that New York City’s NYC Business Express was seen as a guiding light for their project, and some of the features employed there, like a TurboTax-style wizard, may eventually make their way to the San Francisco portal.

Other future features include a closer integration with the municipality’s back-end systems. While SFBP is a thorough and well organized source of information, it’s not yet a technological wonder. The portal houses more than 400 forms in PDF format, which users can download and fill out, but eventually, the city wants those forms to be available online to fill out and submit, Gong said. Before they do all of that work, however, the city also needs to refine the internal processes behind business formation.

“Why does it take over 20 permits to open a restaurant? Can we look at the existing process? Let’s map out the existing process, take a look at where the efficiency gaps are and maybe try to improve those, and maybe we can get rid of some permits that aren’t necessary,” she said.

Changing the bureaucracy in San Francisco is difficult because much of the business formation process is legislated. Changing it may require more legislation, Gong said, but in the meantime, the first phase of the attack -- against paperwork -- seems to have been well received.

Between Nov. 16 and Dec. 15, the portal averaged 143 sessions per day with 103 users per day and 428 page views per day, according to the city. Several Twitter users have commented on the portal favorably.







The San Francisco Business Portal succeeds a portal launched in 2013 called License 123, an off-the-shelf solution built by then-pilot vendor Docstoc. Gong explained that while License 123 was a quick solution that fit the city’s short-term needs of putting information online for business owners, it was hard to customize and didn’t fit the city's long-term goals. License 123 housed fewer than 200 permit documents to the new portal’s 400, and has since been taken offline. 

Business portals are becoming fairly common in government and are found in varying forms and stages of maturity. Maryland Made Easy serves as a central portal for business owners in the state, Missouri has had a business portal since 2008, and an increasing number of cities are developing startup portals that focus on a burgeoning economy of grass-roots technology companies.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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