In recent years, we've heard a lot about how technology can improve "citizen engagement." Platforms that let us report potholes, follow previously closed public meetings, and fund community projects provide new ways for citizens to interact with government. Their great potential is that they give citizens more say in decision making.
But they're also not the whole story of "civic tech." Alongside these consumer-facing companies, there are many others taking on the deeper, more intractable problems of government. "While the civic tech excitement and energy has been great for cities across the country, it represents only one piece of a much larger movement that has the potential to redefine government on every level, not just citizen engagement," says Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer at e.Republic, an e-government publishing and research company.
Here then are five startups Haisler thinks we should be paying more attention to. They may not be as sexy and as marketable as some, he says. But each has "the ability to catalyze massive amounts of change from within city hall."
Pondera Solutions offers what it calls "fraud detection as a service." It takes data from tax filings, employers, and benefits systems and then, using Google’s Prediction API engine, identifies patterns of suspicious activity. "They use big data to predict fraud," Haisler says. "They'll take known fraudulent actors and they'll train this machine learning system to find other types of people who exhibit similar types of behavior to them."
It claims to save governments money and time in detecting fraud and stopping it.
Cities tend to sit on all kinds of land they don't know what to do with. OpportunitySpace brings all it into the open. A marketplace for "under-valued land and buildings," it connects available space with potential new owners and tenants. "States and city governments often have no idea what to do with this stuff and they'll hire high-dollar consultants to figure out what to do with it," Haisler says. "This gives that land more exposure and lets people come forward and say, 'Hey, I want to do something with that.'"
NIC offers to run government websites top-to-bottom, taking care of all hosting and maintenance issues. What's unusual is that it asks governments for no money upfront. NIC gets paid from service fees—for example, a cut of the money you pay when you renew your driving license. "It eliminated the barrier completely to government to set up new sites, because there was no longer this huge multimillion contract at the front. It was basically a transaction play," Haisler says. With dozens of contracts, NIC isn't a small company—it's listed on Nasdaq—which is another reason Haisler likes them. "Most people think of govtech and they think of this little company and give it a pat on the back. This is a big company, and it's very disruptive," he says.
Nothing defines "important but boring" better than procurement, and few areas of government have been harder to fix. Municipalities and cities are notorious for overpaying for stuff because they lack good pricing information, or the way they purchase involves too many intermediaries or hidden interests. SmartProcure takes sales data from thousands of "local, state, and federal agencies" and makes sense of it. "Using a network of government buyers, SmartProcure provides a transparency layer so agencies can see what vendors have the best price on individual products," Haisler says.
SeamlessDocs lets government take existing PDF documents and converts them instantly into web-fillable forms. "It's not sexy because people don't talk about PDFs and paperwork, but it really does solve a problem," Haisler says. "In L.A., you can hold up a picture of your driver's license to your webcam and it will take it, scan it, and secure [the data]." Previously, governments created whole new templates once they switched from paper to web, sometimes having to get new legislative approval to do so. Now, they can do more conversion, and borrow more from other places. "The end-game is that every city has its own forms, so if I want to create a new ordinance for parking, I don't have to get an attorney to draft one. I can say 'I'm going to use what Atlantic City or L.A. is using instead.' It allows for that knowledge transfer to happen."
Before working in the media, Haisler was chief information officer for Manor, Texas, a small city outside Austin. He knows the problems of government firsthand, and he's irked that civic engagement gets all the attention while other topics fall by the wayside. When you include things like intelligent infrastructure and tools to improve administration and service delivery, the civic tech market is a much bigger movement, worth as much as $175 billion, according to e.Republic figures.
"It frustrates me to hear about a few sites and have it all painted as that," he says. "It discredits the market and governments miss a larger opportunity to engage with people and companies that are specifically targeting those inner-workings that make things better."