The Civic Cloud – Accela Gives Citizen/Government Engagement a Boost

The concept of citizen engagement and its ability to promote a more civil and rational society isn’t just a good idea. Taking the gains in enterprise software with respect to people engagement, back office transaction processing, and the cloud, and applying them to the interplay between citizens and their governments, has enormous potential to dramatically change what has been an historically adversarial and, frankly, waste-ridden relationship.

If this is done right, the benefits to society can be enormous, and not just in terms of saving money and time, or lowering the blood pressure of citizens trying to deal with dysfunctional government processes and government employees trying to deal with irate, frustrated citizens. All worthy goals, by the way. But I also believe that taking the gains in enterprise software, particularly in terms of CRM, the cloud, and mobile, and pushing them into the government sector can provide a platform for bridging the enormous political and social polarization that exists in most democracies – ours in particular.

While we may disagree with what services government should provide – and to whom – I think everyone on both sides of the aisle can agree that engagement, efficiency, and effectiveness should be at the core those services. Admittedly, enterprise software’s track record in applying those principles in the private sector – and public sector – has often been spotty. But for the most part the core processes of government, particularly those that involve direct interaction with citizens and other stakeholders – and that includes contractors providing services to government, companies doing business within the jurisdiction of government entities, as well as government employees themselves – are so poorly automated and un-enterprisey that a little enterprise juice could go a long way in this domain.

This is why I’m interested in companies like Accela, which recently released a cloud-based platform, the very aptly named Civic Cloud, that can serve as the organizing foundation for the delivery of next-generation government services. The Civic Cloud and its associated services are based on the idea that leveraging the cloud as a means to organize core government processes like permitting, planning, zoning, and inspection is an excellent way to take enterprise efficiency to state and local government.

If you’ve ever, as I have, tried to get a building permit or tried to survive a zoning process – even ones that are very straightforward and “by the book” – you know that the bar is set extremely low for the engagement, efficiency, and effectiveness that Accela and competitors like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Infor, and others are trying to provide.

There’s lot of activity in the public sector vertical, and open government is part of this drive to take what we know works in the tech/enterprise world and extend it to government. What’s nice about Accela’s approach is that it’s easy to see a relatively rapid return on a relatively small investment – thanks in part to cloud-based pricing, which is nothing but good for governments that are strapped for cash to fund major capital projects. It also helps that the company isn’t a startup just getting its feet wet in this new market: Accela has over existing 500 customers and a solid on-prem track record.

A final note – literally the day after I met with Accela, I received a notice from my city telling me that a review of their accounts showed that my wife and I had never paid for garbage service at a rental property we own. Apparently when the house was renovated by my wife’s family there was no garbage account ever set up. So for years we’ve been getting free garbage pickup, assuming that somehow our renters were magically paying the bill. Maybe good for us as greedy landlords, but definitely bad for our local government. The upshot, of course, is that we’ll have to do our civic duty and get paid up – no way we can argue that we don’t owe the city for these services, even though we were never actually billed for them. No doubt because the city’s back office systems were too antiquated to figure out that services were being delivered at an address for which no account apparently existed.

Why I am making this a footnote to this post? It turns out that my city is a new customer of Accela – and while I can’t be sure, I doubt this is a coincidence. Being more efficient and effective does have a price, apparently. At least the city employee I spoke with to unravel the problem was polite and well-informed. Thanks, I think, Accela 

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