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Enabling Citizens to Build Strong Communities More Efficiently

As part of GovLoop's most recent guide entitled, "Innovating at the Point of Citizen Engagement: Making Every Moment Count," I interviewed Maury Blackman, President and CEO of Accela, which powers thousands of services and millions of transactions for more than 500 public agencies worldwide, enabling governments to connect with citizens and streamline processes related to land management, asset management, licensing, and public health & safety. The guide includes an excerpt of a longer discussion, and that full interview is shared below.

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When it comes to citizen engagement, there are some actions that fall between “must do” and “should do.” Businesses need to file forms and abide by laws and regulations, while homeowners pay property taxes and make upgrades to their land or houses. Of course, we want the city streets that lead to our business and homes to be clean and well maintained, which is a responsibility that citizens share with government.

At the intersection of these actions is a company called Accela, which powers thousands of services and millions of transactions for more than 500 public agencies worldwide, enabling governments to connect with citizens and streamline processes related to land management, asset management, licensing, and public health & safety. We had the opportunity to interview Accela’s CEO, Maury Blackman, and gain his insights regarding ways in which governments can streamline citizen access to key information and important interactions.

Q: What is citizen engagement?

Blackman: “From our standpoint, citizen engagement really hits three areas. First, it includes managing public infrastructure in terms of taking care of what's in the city - fixing potholes, downed stop signs, etc. The second piece is making it easy to open a business by enabling entrepreneurs and small business owners to understand the rules and requirements to set up a restaurant, for instance. Third, we look at property management. People are obviously passionate about their homes and the places where they live. How does government have a conversation with them about what’s going on with their property as well as their neighbors and what’s going on around them?”

Q: Why is mobile engagement becoming more and more important?

Blackman: “Let me give you a clear case study about why mobile matters. One of the key markets that our customers want to work with includes contractors. They want to reach out to contractors to make it easy to build in their communities. Well, guess what? Contractors don’t sit behind desks and surf websites. They're on the job. They’re doing work! But what do they all have? They all have phones. If we can provide those services to them on a mobile phone so they can transact with their government - get permits, schedule inspections, get updates directly from their phones - then we’ve accomplished our mission. The reality is that when we started talking about these services being able to open up city hall 24/7, you have to reach people where they’re working and where they want to do business.”

Q: What’s the difference between adapting a technology solution and really leveraging it in a cost effective way?

Blackman: “I think you have to be having a conversation with people that they want to have. You have to understand what civic engagement is about and how to communicate effectively with your community. I go back to the last dot-com rage, which was back in the late 90s, where people were just setting up websites. Some people just set them up and provided a little bit of info - but some people got it and saw it as a way to transact and a way to conduct e-commerce with people. It’s the same thing with civic engagement, some people are going to get it and some people are going to fall behind. What we’re saying to our customers and our prospects is that we will help you get it. We will help you bring it to the next level, and help you foster those communications that you want to have with your citizens.”

Q: Do you have an example you can cite?

Blackman: “One of my favorite stories is this small border town in Arizona called Nogales. They have a need for citizen engagement just like New York City, Boston or Washington, DC. We were able to go in with our civic cloud and get them up and running within just a few months. Now they have a very effective system that they are happy with that is regulating the businesses in their neighborhoods and helping them build buildings faster.”

Q: What is that “civic cloud” you just referenced?

Blackman: “The civic cloud really is a collection of pre-packaged solutions that enables government agencies of all sizes to get up and running with the services that I talked about to build buildings fast and get business open quickly. One thing we try to do through the civic cloud platform is to really provide government with the tools to manage communication so that, as information is coming in, they’re not having to answer the same question a couple hundred times. The product has its own logic built in, so it understands that a case has already been opened 10 times and allows an organization to know the best way to respond (i.e. “we’ve already sent an investigator out to the project”). Those are the types of things that make it an effective management tool.

In addition, the civic cloud is all about bringing civic engagement to the small neighboring cities that don’t have huge budgets. Big cities have multi-million dollar budgets to really build the infrastructure to make the types of services available that I’m talking about. Smaller agencies don't have the infrastructure and service behind the scenes, so the cloud really makes that possible. Without the cloud they would have to have significant IT staff, significant servers, significant infrastructure behind the scenes to make it a reality. It really allows these smaller agencies to jump on board and provide citizen engagement type services.”

Q: In 100 words or less, how does Accela help government and citizens connect?

Blackman: “If you want in your jurisdiction to be able to build buildings fast, and fill those up with cutting edge businesses, then you need to be talking to us. We can put you on the forefront of those activities and enable you to engage with your customers in ways you probably didn't think of before.”

To learn more about Accela and their Civic Cloud, please visit http://www.accela.com/civiccloud


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