Catherine Geanuracos
September 24, 2015

Case Study: CityGrows + Santa Monica

Most local governments have at least some functional services online. At a minimum, there is a simple online payment function — usually a holdover from early 2000s-era technology that allows people to pay their parking tickets or taxes. Sometimes there’s a semi-digital building permit process, or a PDF form to print out at home…and bring to City Hall!

Standalone (and often expensive) software solutions exist for specific departmental needs. But inevitably, there are things that are either particular to your local government, or “use cases” that just are too small to justify a standalone product. Even when add-ons or customizations are available, they’re often cost-prohibitive and unwieldy for your team to configure — or you’d have to pay someone to configure it for you.

How can you justify spending $50,000 to bring a process online that only brings in $25,000 in revenue a year?

The answer is: you can’t. So governments limp along with paper based processes. Almost every local government has at least a few of these PDF processes — for everything from garage sale permits to pet licenses to street closure permits.

The universal challenge: your unique workflow

That’s the position that Santa Monica’s Mobility Division was in with their Worksite Transportation Plan (WTP). Santa Monica requires businesses to report on employees’ transportation to and from work using the WTP — the city assesses fees and prompts businesses to create plans to reduce the traffic and pollution associated with solo car commuters. It’s a unique but vitally important process to the City’s sustainability goals, and it was impossible to justify raising WTP fees to pay for customized software to digitize the process- yet businesses expected to be able to complete the process online.

You won’t be needing PDFs anymore!

The PDFs for the WTP were posted online, but businesses still had to fill them out and print the forms, then mail them with either a check or a credit card authorization form.

This paper-based approach got the job done, but required a long time for processing (30+ days), manual data entry, and delays in completing the process when there were even minor mistakes.

It also resulted in a lot of anxious emails and phone calls from businesses — they wanted to know if their forms had been received, how much they’d have to pay, and when their submissions would be approved.

The solution: building CityGrows together

Even though the Mobility Division had managed to get some budget allocated to bring this process online, they quickly realized that doing it well would take much more time (and money) than they had. Building custom software from the ground up isn’t really the strong suit of most City departments — and City IT teams are usually overwhelmed dealing with big things like bringing City processes into the cloud, managing security, and setting up and maintaining websites and office networks.

Luckily for Mobility Division (and very luckily for CityGrows!) we found each other through the City of Santa Monica’s Hack the Beach challenge. We were part of the first cycle of the program in 2015, when the City of Santa Monica’s Technology team decided to partner with the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce to see if the local startup community could help the City achieve some of its primary objectives — including improving the City’s internal processes and performance.

Santa Monica understood the need — they were motivated to make government more accessible, welcoming, and user-friendly for individual constituents and businesses — and were willing to experiment with new technologies to improve the “user experience” of government.
Stephen and Catherine from CityGrows with Jack Moreau from the Mobility Divison (+ Brian MacMahon from Expert Dojo, another Hack the Beach partner) presenting at the 2016 Santa Monica State of the City event.

At that point, CityGrows was about 60% built — Stephen Corwin had been working on the platform for a while, but it was still in development. He already knew he wanted to build a tool that would work for almost any process, permit, or license — because we’d heard from our friends in local government that there were a lot of “orphan” processes out there like the WTP. And he knew he wanted to build something that wouldn’t require an IT team, a consultant, or any technical knowledge to set up — because we knew there were a lot of people in local government like Jack Moreau, a Transportation Management Specialist in the Mobility Division, who would be able to do great things if they had an online platform they could configure to meet their departments’ unique needs.

A dedicated team of coders, working to build out a customizable but sophisticated platform solution, can have much more impact across many organizations than if each organization tried to build its own solution.

A win-win rollout

Working with the Mobility team let us finish building the CityGrows platform with the feedback from real-world government “baked in.”

The City of Santa Monica benefitted by having their own transportation expert build out the WTP online himself on CityGrows — nothing got lost in translation because Jack was able to easily revise the questions in the CityGrows online form, arrange when and who reviewed each application, and monitor process completion in real time.

Some of the features that emerged from our collaboration include:

  • a summary of each step in the process that an applicant can see before they get started.
  • an always-visible “status” page so that everyone can see exactly which step each applicant is on in real time.
  • alerts and updates so that people got a notification when it is their turn to move a process forward.
  • a performance visualization so that everyone can see how long (on average) the process takes to complete.

These features let businesses know what to expect — and they’ve allowed the Mobility Division to demonstrate the success of the new CityGrows-enabled WTP. When the process was on paper, it took about a month to complete. Now, because of streamlining the steps (there’ nothing like having to put something into a publicly viewable format to make you reconsider if everything you’re doing is really essential ) as well as the reduction in unnecessary administrative activities (like sending and answering anxious emails and mailing forms) the process takes, on average, about 14 days — more than a 50% reduction in overall time.

.hereConstituents can track the progress of their process. See the live data

And while the process did require some careful thinking and time to set up on Jack’s part, there wasn’t any up-front cost to setting it up and testing it out. Now, whenever a business processes a payment, CityGrows gets a small percentage of the fee. And now other cities with similar processes are able to check out Santa Monica’s, “clone” it if they like, and adapt it for their own use. All for free!

CityGrows owes a huge thanks to the team at the City of Santa Monica for being willing to collaborate with a young startup, and we think it’s been a huge win for both partners. What’s more, the 2017 application for the next cohort of Hack the Beach is hosted on the CityGrows platform — and we’re powering more and more processes within Santa Monica all the time. Ready to test out your own process improvement ideas? Sign up for a free CityGrows account and get started — or get in touch with us and we’ll help you get set up! Applications for Hack the Beach 2017 are open until September 4th — we strongly encourage civic and government technology startups to apply!

Catherine Geanuracos

CEO and Co-Founder of CityGrows. Dedicated to transforming government technology and helping local governments provide better service and do more with less. Former VP of City of Los Angeles Innovation and Performance Commission, co-founder of LA's Code for America Brigade Hack for LA. Catherine is the Chair of the Board for CicLAvia, north America's largest open streets bicycle events. She's based in Silver Lake in Los Angeles.

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