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

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 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, the cloud computing environment where 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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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