CityGrows to Controller: What I learned during my year at a startup
As I begin my transition to my new role as the Erie County Controller, I’ve reflected back on what I’ve learned during my time working with CityGrows. I spent the last year talking to governments across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York promoting the idea that technology can help governments save valuable money and time. I'm looking forward to bringing that perspective into the Controller's office, and to continuing to advocate for innovation and efficiency in government. I'll be a better Controller because I spent time in the private sector, and the CityGrows team definitely benefits from having people like me who have extensive experience with government on board.
Less than a year ago, I came to CityGrows with a 23 year background in higher education and no experience whatsoever in software or IT. I'm not the person you'd expect to be working at a startup. However, as a former college director of Career Development, I had purchased and utilized a system that, in concept, worked much like CityGrows does. I knew from that experience that a sound investment in cloud-based technology can make everyone in an office more efficient. But I also know that change can be hard, especially in government systems where people are used to doing things a certain way.
I served for 16 years on Erie County Council. As a member of Council, I championed the use of technology whenever I could, but I never saw anything like CityGrows. I recall our co-founder saying that if you can track your pizza order online, why can’t you track a form you’ve submitted to your local government? No truer words have ever been spoken.
What I’ve learned over the last year is that the two biggest obstacles to adopting new technology are (perceived) cost and the concerns over security. Many government leaders didn't return my calls, because they assumed that they didn't have the budget for more software- but new, cloud-based technology like CityGrows is affordable for almost any community. Seriously - check out the pricing.
Governments are understandably concerned about data security and data breaches, given what's happened over the last few years, but they also underestimate the security risks of paper-based or spreadsheet tracking. Cloud-based software like CityGrows is often much more secure than the "old way" of doing things.
Think about how many transactions we conduct online which include “sensitive information.” How many of us physically walk into a bank anymore? How many of us pay our bills online? How many of us do our Christmas shopping (or even grocery shopping) online? Any why do we do it? It saves us time, money and because it’s so convenient. There's no reason that government can't be just as convenient to interact with as any other organization, and companies like CityGrows are making that a reality, today.
Finally, I’m 52 and I’ve adapted to technology relatively well. I'd encourage any local government leader to think carefully about whether your government's online presence is where you'd like it to be. What might the lack of online services in a community signal to potential future residents and business owners thinking of relocating to your area? You can imagine what succeeding generations will want out of their government in the future. Walking into City Hall to pay a bill, or filling out a PDF online and then mailing it in (or physically dropping it off) just isn't acceptable. And many of the paper and PDF-based ways of requesting services from governments aren't accessible to residents with disabilities, and may even put your government at risk of accessibility lawsuits. Every government should be thinking about what services can be brought online today, and keep in mind how better technology will help residents and businesses and improve your staff's day-to-day experience, too.
As a Controller, one of my primary responsibilities will be to make recommendations to departments as to how they can operate more efficiently and transparently. Technology like CityGrows will have to be part of that conversation. I encourage more people to do what I am about to do- moving between the private sector and working in government during our careers. Our governments can't improve without private sector knowledge, and companies like CityGrows can't effectively serve government without really understanding what our needs are. I'm looking forward to working with other Controllers and government innovators throughout my career, and I'm really appreciative that I got to spend some time at a startup like CityGrows that's built great technology and has big goals for how we can improve government, for all of us.