GovTech: Accela, OpenCities Partner on No-Code Digital Services Tool
Check out Accela in the article below!
By Andrew Westrope
GovTech- September 15, 2020
Seeing a growing demand for digital services across the board, two major players in the digital government space, Accela and OpenCities, have joined forces on a new no-code platform for state and local governments to create more integrated, user-friendly websites and forms.
Today, the pair is announcing Premium Citizen Experience, a software-as-a-service product that marries the expertise of both companies. Website-building functions come from OpenCities, which has been working on making government websites more user-friendly and service-oriented for years, and those will connect with Accela’s growing suite of licensing and permitting tools on the back end. The goal of the partnership is to help governments do several things quickly in-house instead of hiring software engineers to do it for them: create online portals for various services, make them consistent and integrated with requisite documents and back-end processes, make them navigable and understandable to citizens, and modify them in the future to comply with any new policies or regulations that come along.
Accela VP of Product Management Amber D’Ottavio said as more and more people are using online versions of paper processes — for business or rental licenses, fire permits, inspection permits, et cetera — there’s a growing expectation that government agencies make them accessible and understandable, and frankly, some of them are inherently complicated. She gave the example of opening a restaurant, for which one would need to interact with several agencies and apply for a business license, a liquor license, a facility or food permit, maybe a permit for remodeling and so on. But if the citizen had never done this before, how do they know where to start? Where do they go, what are the steps, how long does it take, how much will it cost? A website might answer these questions, but different departments usually have their own portals and forms.
“A lot of government websites were very fragmented, so the information was in different places,” D’Ottavio said. “They may have several back-end systems that handle transactions similar to Accela, but on the front end, trying to access them, the user would get redirected. Sometimes they weren’t even on the website. You would actually access them from a different source.”
That’s where the Premium Citizen Experience comes in, and why Accela partnered with a company whose purview is helping governments build websites that clarify this information, and standardize all the various forms and websites involved. Luke Norris, managing director of strategy and government relations at OpenCities, said the Australian company has been in business for about 10 years, powers the websites of about one in five local governments in Australia, and has helped build websites for American cities like Orlando, Fla.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Miami since starting business in the U.S. in 2016.
Norris said one of the key challenges with citizen-government interactions today is that many of them start on Google.
“Google would often search and drop them at a point in the website that gives them the launching-off point to Accela, but it didn’t actually have all of the context that they needed to start permitting with Accela,” he said. “What OpenCities does on the front end of that is, as a resident comes into the website, they have the ability to search for whatever they’re looking for, using this government taxonomy that turns resident lingo into government speak so the resident can find what they’re looking for.”
That means when a citizen uses a website built with OpenCities, or now the Premium Citizen Experience, they can type in a simple inquiry or command and find step-by-step instructions for what they need to do — online, in person, by phone or by mail. The site then walks them through an eligibility screening process.
“This helps take out the frustration of people starting to do a sign permit, or starting to do a pool permit, and realizing that they’re not even eligible because they haven’t even done an excavation permit first,” Norris said. “So you’re creating the step-by-step, but also the pre-qualification capability.”
For two companies with deep roots in their respective markets, the impetus for the Premium Citizen Experience, for partnership, is manifold. The new product sits at a cross-section of recent gov tech trends: digital services, software-as-a-service, low-code and no-code environments, user-centered design and forward compatibility, to name a few.
According to D’Ottavio and Norris, it’s an attempt to meet the demands of a new era brought on by COVID-19. They know that now and in the future, making services more accessible will include minimizing the need to physically walk into a government building and talk to someone. They know their customers face growing expectations to do this. And their company’s joint news release mentions a 2020 report by the National League of Cities that predicts local governments in the U.S. will lose $360 billion in revenue over the next three years, so the need to do things quickly and cheaply in-house is likely to increase.
This is writing on the wall that other companies appear to have noticed, too. Granicus launched a new digital services platform in October 2019, and CivicPlusannounced a new low-code software tool for creating digital service portals in May 2020.
Speaking to Government Technology’s ICYMI video series this week, the city of San Antonio’s chief technology officer, Kevin Goodwin, differentiated the Premium Citizen Experience from those two, somewhat, in that it offers the user more control over design, and the ability to make tweaks themselves. He said San Antonio was “on the road to no-code” before COVID-19, but the last few months have accelerated the transition.
“We had to respond quickly using a variety of low-code technologies, among them OpenCities, to be a major part of our response and recovery efforts within the city. It’s definitely something that has made us deliver better, faster,” he said. “We found that that’s where these two technologies really come together for us … People that are coming to the city because they need help with something, or they need information on something, it’s because they’re in some kind of a crisis situation, and being able to provide an excellent experience for them while they deal with the trauma is really helping us to provide better services.”
Check out Accela in the article below!
By Andrew Westrope
GovTech- June 15, 2020
When local governments reflect on 2020, one of their takeaway lessons might be the importance of adaptability. Although gov tech giant Accela had this in mind before agencies from coast to coast had shuttered their offices, the company today announced a new civic application to help fire departments make prevention work more flexible.
Accela’s new SaaS tool for fire prevention is its eighth in a series of civic applications, starting March 2018, all of which aim to replace paper-based processes with digital workflows and automated steps. The company’s news release said the new fire prevention application streamlines aspects of fire plan reviews, inspections and fire permitting, and it includes mobile tools for team inspections and training.
Aaron Williams, Accela’s senior director of solution architecture, said the application is essentially for anything a fire department needs to document, permit or inspect, which in many places includes thousands of occupancies a year. He said normally this would involve reams of printed paper, hand-delivered inspection notices, clipboards, file cabinets and potentially a lot of staff time.
“That used to be a three-week process for them to do a sweep of annuals, and now that three weeks is almost entirely gone, because all you have to do is store it in your system,” Williams said. “This will automatically schedule the inspections on the annual date, and the inspections are routed out to the stations over the Internet through our software and performed on mobile devices. You’re essentially eliminating paper entirely from the process.”
He said the product comes in three iterations: an entry-level “fire essentials” package, which can transition a department off of a paper process in a matter of weeks; a more robust “fire extended” version with more features and dashboards; and a “fire enterprise” version for inventory management and team inspections of higher-occupancy structures like high-rises and stadiums.
Accela has been selling software to expedite fire prevention processes for years, but under the original series of “civic solutions,” now being phased out in favor of new civic applications. Williams said Accela’s original civic platform of solutions was a development tool that gave governments the ability to configure their business processes, but some of those configurations became hard to maintain.
“What happened is, the solutions evolved with agencies internally over time, and they were as good as the last IT department. … The machine got so big and so complicated, you needed more people to maintain it,” he said. “With civic applications, you don’t need that product manager anymore, because Accela has that product manager, focused on building that product, fixing bugs, enhancing features.”
Besides being the next application in the series, Williams said the new fire prevention software was partially inspired by other work with government agencies through COVID-19, asking them what they needed. He said a lot of them had to close their offices that handled permits, so they were looking for mobile, digital alternatives.
“They needed to get online, like, tomorrow, or in the next few days. So we created generic solutions where you could just set the thing up, not very invasive for your staff,” he said. “A bunch of people used it, and we saw the opportunity to do the same thing with fire.”
Accela’s news release corroborated the idea that governments are going mobile: More than 80 percent of the company’s new customers since the pandemic purchased solutions in the cloud, and 66 percent of its entire customer base is in the cloud.