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Startup Looks to Modernize City Websites

ProudCity Co-founder Luke Fretwell reveals a cloud platform officials can use easily to customize and manage websites without technical expertise.

Take a look at city government websites and you’re likely to find a mix of pixelated logos, jumbled hyperlinks and a baffling variety of menus. Too many sites incorporate turn-of-the-century Web design. Some of it even hails back to the '90s.

The poor state of so many city sites prompted Kevin Herman, Jeff Lyon, Alex Schmoe and Luke Fretwell (who is also the founder of the government tech blog GovFresh) to mount what might be called an intervention. In 2014 the four met at a conference in Austin, Texas, to explore what an easy, cloud-based website creation platform would look like for cities.

The idea is already pervasive in the consumer world with services like Weebly and Wix. The group wondered what would happen if governments had access to the same type of service. A year later, the four fashioned a prototype and founded the startup ProudCity.

Today ProudCity advertises itself as an out-of-the-box, enterprise-level website platform to localities — primarily small to medium-sized cities — that want the latest technology, but don’t want the pricing of a large Web design firm. Considering the potential impact for cities, Government Technology selected ProudCity as part of its inaugural GovTech100, a listing of notable public-sector companies as well as one of five startups to watch in 2016.

In an interview, Fretwell elaborated on how ProudCity got started and what happens next.

Government Technology:
What were some of the greatest frustrations you found with government websites over the years that led to the creation of ProudCity?

proudcity-demo.jpgProudCity Co-founder Luke Fretwell:  First, the delivery model. Cities that use a vendor for a large, upfront, one-time purchase and then move to a monthly support plan aren’t realizing the benefits of a product that gets better every day. Software-as-a-service is now the status quo in the enterprise and government can realize its benefits on both price and quality product.

Second, the procurement process. Government, in general, is forced to buy then try, and there’s a long, drawn-out request for a proposal process that ultimately leads to acquisition of an outdated technology product. With ProudCity, we believe in a free, try-before-you-buy beta option. There’s no reason government should have to buy a product without testing it, internally and publicly with residents.

Third, the user experience. The lack of user-focused, iterative, elegant design for government websites leads to frustration. Government stakeholders are frustrated by how much time and training is needed to do simple tasks, and having a sub-par CMS [content management system] leads to outdated information and high costs to maintain. On the resident front, iterating on the design allows us to incorporate lessons-learned on what information should be prioritized, where and how.

GT: Where did ProudCity draw inspiration for its Web design and features? For example, did some of the design notes come from specific city sites or federal digital services groups like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service?

Fretwell: The ProudCity co-founders all have extensive experience in government Web design and development and have a strong grasp on general best practices based on working on consumer and government-focused Web products.

We’ve also extensively studied the incredible amount of research and work [the civic tech organization] Code for America did with its Digital Front Door initiative and other similar efforts.

Much like we’ve seen with what 18F, U.S. Digital Service and Code for America have done to emphasize a standardized design guide, we’ve created our own pattern library based on the responsive framework Bootstrap, which was initially developed by Twitter, and then made available for anyone to re-purpose. So, we’re using best practices for mobile-friendly websites, which is important as the rate of mobile visitors is increasing dramatically every day.

Our base palette, particularly our brand colors, were “borrowed” directly from the U.S. Web Design Standards [created by 18F and USDS]. We spent about half a day discussing what we should do for colors, then realized someone had already done that for us. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, we chose to leverage the great work done by 18F and USDS.

What’s important to note is that our product design will evolve as we learn more how residents use cities’ services, and we’ll experiment with new approaches based on this information. Every city on the platform will realize these upgrades at no additional cost.

GT: Taking a look under the hood, what makes ProudCity's solution a competitive offering on the back end — functionality, integrations, legacy support, etc.?

Fretwell: ProudCity is based on a modern, ever-evolving, open source content management system, Calypso/WordPress, that was built to manage millions of websites across multiple domains under one platform.

Because of this, we’re able to focus much of our product development on issues that are specific to resident user experience and internal government needs.

The administrative tools are easy to use and include user-managed roles, permissions and workflow. For on-boarding, we’ve built and continue to refine a wizard that walks new customers through setting up their website, from customizing the look and feel to content-specific aspects of getting a site off the ground.

We’re also able to integrate across a number of service providers, such as SeeClickFix, MailChimp, social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube), Mapbox and OpenStreetMap and continue to expand these offerings across various product domains. Rather than lock governments into one stack of digital services, they are free to use whatever service best meets their needs and satisfaction.

For security, we’ve adopted a single sign-on and token-based authentication process and have plans to extend security that will be announced in the near future.

GT: What user-input did you gather from cities to create ProudCity and have you launched any live sites yet?

Fretwell: Our first city launches Feb. 23, and we have a number in beta that are testing the platform and deciding how they want to move forward and promote these as their future sites.

We’ve talked with a number of end-user government stakeholders — from executives to Web managers — on what their needs and challenges are, as well as integrated the Digital Front Door findings, and continue to solicit input.

We’re still evolving our user feedback protocol, but based on analytical feedback, we see a big demand for easier access to payments, job listings, events and legal-related information. We will continue to gather anecdotal feedback from our live chat tools, user surveys, as well as Web traffic analytics, heat mapping and other metrics-based tools.

With beta, we really want to change what it means to “launch,” moving away from this long process involving no public feedback and high-pressure from government to get it right out the gate. We’re excited to see the dynamic change on what’s considered a “launch,” and how getting a free, public-facing beta makes that process more collaborative and pleasant for everyone involved.

GT: With websites constantly in a state of evolution I imagine you're already planning the next set of features for the service. What functionality is ProudCity considering for future iterations?

Fretwell: We’ll continue to refine both the public-facing templates as well as the administrative tools for internal managers, including:

  • More templates that makes it easier to set up pages in minutes
  • Scalable, data-driven content that pulls from commercial and government (local/state/federal) APIs with no need for administrators to manage manually (such as /vote and /representative pages)
  • Analytics dashboard that allows administrators to view user traffic inside the ProudCity platform
  • Full agency-specific websites
  • Aggressive integration with more third-party services

GT: How would you describe ProudCity's current development as a startup? (For example, are you in the seed stage, reaching out to angel investors, or preparing for a round of Series A venture capital?)

Fretwell: We have an angel investor that is supporting our approach to changing how governments procure and manage their digital services. This is allowing us to focus on building a great service offering and getting initial customers. We have not begun to look for investors.

We have nevertheless recently been approached by two investors and are considering opening our angel round or preparing an A round. Our primary goal with bringing in any new financial partners will be to increase the speed of adoption.

GT: What is the most prominent challenge to being an entrepreneur in the govtech space and what is the greatest advantage?

Fretwell: As far as challenges, getting government stakeholders to understand the sense of urgency in adopting a new product is important. I strongly recommend to those that express a sincere interest they should be proactive in responding to follow-ups and status. Government stakeholders should also let go of preconceived notions about what a product should do and be open to new possibilities.

Startups aren’t building a modified version of the tool or widget you’ve been using for the last 10 years. They’re building something that you never realized was possible, and it’ll make your work exponentially more enjoyable.

I’m fortunate to have been part of a number of startups, and the energy around every early stage venture is incredible because there’s this unified sense that you’re building something exponentially better than what’s currently available.

When you demo your product and share your philosophical approach to changing the current paradigm, and you get a reaction that emulates your excitement and enthusiasm, it’s invigorating.

We’re talking to early adopters, so the feedback has been incredible and is slightly selective, but to hear “people are going to be knocking down your door when they see what this is” about something you’ve conceptualized and are building for thousands of cities, it’s rewarding and motivating.

There’s a general sentiment that where we are with technology — with the maturation of open source, low-cost infrastructure and the software-as-a-service business model — it’s a perfect storm for revolutionizing how government delivers digital offerings.

The advantage is that we get to package up this enthusiasm and energy, work closely with government and help change the way public services can be delivered.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.