Can Accela’s “Civic Cloud” Turn City Bureaucrats Into Heroes?

7/8/14Follow @wroush

On April 9, 2013, a severe hailstorm swept through western Nebraska, pounding the Omaha area with stones so large they shattered car windows, punctured skylights, and destroyed roofs. Suddenly, thousands of Omaha homeowners needed emergency repairs. But first, they needed the city permits required for all that roof construction.

It was the kind of crisis that often snarls government offices in paperwork, lines, and months-long delays. But in Omaha, officials in the City Planning Department’s Building and Development division barely had to lift a finger to deal with the rush. A couple of years earlier, the city had adopted an online permitting system from Accela, a San Ramon, CA-based maker of cloud-based software for government. Homeowners and contractors were able to log on to the department’s website and submit their permit applications in minutes.

In the months after the storm, the city automatically approved more than 6,000 re-roofing permits through the Accela platform, according to Stu Craven, a senior applications analyst for the City of Omaha. “There’s no way our staff could have managed that amount of work and still kept up on everything else,” Craven told the company in a video case study. “It’s really saved us.”

In an era when consumers can go online for instant access to services from companies like Amazon or FedEx, or even the local cable TV provider or electric utility, it’s infuriating to find that many of the government bureaucracies in our lives still want to interact with us via paper forms and 1970s mainframe applications. That’s the picture Accela is working to fix in places like Omaha, Cleveland, and Palo Alto, CA, all of which have become customers. Alongside competitors such as San Francisco-based Granicus and Seattle-based Socrata, Accela envisions a future where there’s a responsive, transparent “civic cloud” right alongside the business and social-media clouds we all use every day.

Why don’t we have more responsive government already, given that federal, state, and local agencies in the U.S. pour about $92 billion per year into information technology, including about $8 billion for financial and administrative systems? It’s not public officials’ fault that all this spending hasn’t resulted in better service, according to Maury Blackman, Accela’s president and CEO.

For one thing, government procurement mandates don’t always leave a lot of room for innovation or quality control (the botched October 2013 rollout of Healthcare.gov is the current Exhibit A). But even more important, government offices don’t have the leeway to experiment with “minimum viable products” that get better over time. In government, the software is supposed to work from day one; nobody wants to be the first to try something; and risk-taking is generally punished, not rewarded.

“On Amazon you go online and buy a product and it shows up on your doorstep. Those experiences have shaped people’s thinking about the way government should respond to their demands, so it’s frustrating,” says Blackman (pictured above right). “On the other hand, government has a whole different playbook. Their services have to be secure, and they can’t fail. So Accela’s job is to sit in the middle and be a translator—speaking the language of citizens and how they want to do business, and at the same time speaking the language of government so they are comfortable doing business.”

Accela GIS, one of Accela's "civic cloud" offerings, lets agencies manipulate geospatial data.

Accela GIS, one of Accela’s “civic cloud” offerings, lets agencies manipulate geospatial data.

Accela isn’t some fly-by-night startup: it was founded in 1999 by a group of Silicon Valley land developers, and now has 500 employees spread across offices in San Ramon, in the East Bay; Melbourne, Australia; and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Its 500 customers in the United States include most of the nation’s largest cities and counties, earning the company $70 million in revenue in 2013.

Last year Accela collected $40 million in new venture funding in a round led by Bregal Sagemount, a growth equity fund in New York. It’s used some of that cash to go on an acquisition spree, buying Woburn, MA-based Envista, which maps the right-of-way around city streets; Ronkonkoma, NY-based IQM2, which makes software for managing formal public meetings such as city council sessions; and McLean, VA-based Kinsail, whose software powers reservations and fee collection for public parks and campgrounds.

Services from Envista, IQM2, and Kinsail will all be plugged into Accela’s central system, which Blackman describes as the public-sector equivalent of Force.com, the cloud computing environment where Salesforce.com hosts sales and marketing applications built by third-party developers. “Essentially, we are providing a Platform-as-a-Service so that developers who want to build a technology around a specific project can use our platform as a starting point,” Blackman says.

An example: one company built a mobile app on the Accela platform specifically to help garbage collectors in El Paso, TX, document instances of uncollected trash. “People were complaining that garbage was not getting picked up, but the issue was a lot of people were overfilling dumpsters or putting in hazardous materials,” Blackman says. “Now the collectors can take a picture of the trash, choose from a drop-down menu, and say why they didn’t pick it up. It seems so basic, but those types of services are almost unheard of in places like El Paso.”

Blackman, a former U.S. Army artillery officer and longtime triathlete and ultra-marathoner, joined Accela in 2000 as vice president of sales and marketing, and became CEO in 2007. He says the original idea for the company came from the founders’ frustrations with the land-use permitting process.

“One of the challenges at the time was that the departments that were in charge of land development and permits were all disconnected,” Blackman says. “You’d submit your plan and it would go into this black hole. But as a developer you need to plan your spend. When should I be talking about grading the land? When should I have contractors on site? If you have no idea what’s going on in government, you have no idea how to plan your own workflow.” The same kinds of problems can crop up for an entrepreneur trying to open a restaurant, or a homeowner planning an addition.

While land development was the original use case, Accela built its system from the start to be flexible. A basic data element stored in its cloud database could correspond to a building permit with a permit number, a piece of land with a parcel number, or a person with a fishing-license number. “We knew we wanted to do more than just managing building permits,” Blackman says. “We wanted to be an enterprise system for governments, with licensing, permits, assets, and all the rest.”

This early decision opened the way for Accela to offer its current variety of specialized, subscription-based modules, serving practically every state government or City Hall office from health inspectors to professional licensing boards. The IQM2 acquisition, for example, gets the company into the legislative management business, helping city councils and county and state agency boards build meeting agendas and publish minutes on the Web. The Envista technology, meanwhile, lets cities coordinate access to the public utility right-of-way underneath streets and sidewalks—starting with accurate maps of what’s there and schedules for digging it up. “I’m sure you’ve seen one company cutting up a piece of sidewalk, and then two weeks later someone else is cutting up the same piece,” Blackman says. “They aren’t coordinated. This is what our platform will help with.”

For all the talk in Washington and statehouses across the country about “open government” and the importance of making public data archives free, complete, accessible, and machine-readable, citizens don’t see much benefit from this data until someone, usually a technology company, comes along with a way to aggregate and manage it. (See, for example, the story of Google’s efforts to systematize data from public transit agencies.) The idea of the civic cloud is in its early stages, but it’s still a big improvement that you can go online in an Accela customer city like Palo Alto and check on the status of your building permit—or, for that matter, your neighbor’s.

“One of the big challenges with government is they are resource-constrained,” Blackman says. “They have too much work to do and not enough time to do it, and they don’t know how to make people happy. We want to help them reinvent things through technology. If we can get government to understand and engage with citizens, they can be heroes in their communities.”

Here’s a video from Accela on how the City of Palo Alto is using its tools.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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