Catherine Geanuracos and Stephen Corwin are no strangers to how local government works. She served on the innovation and Performance Commission for the City of Los Angeles; he did contract software development for California cities.
Both are open data advocates, so in 2016 they set out to help governments be more transparent. Corwin came up with a tool to scrape and visualize Los Angeles building permit data. It worked. And others started using it. Soon, other governments wanted their own version.
Geanuracos and Corwin quickly saw that this product couldn’t scale. And they realized the true opportunity was to collect and visualize more data by building software that helps make life easier for people who work inside government.
Government workers, they saw, were under-resourced. They often didn’t have access to great technology. So they were using whatever they could — complex spreadsheets, paper systems, — because that’s what they had to work with.
But it didn’t have to be this way. There was no reason local governments shouldn’t have access to good (and affordable) technology that improved efficiency and transparency for everyone.
With CityGrows, Geanuracos and Corwin aim to provide just that: A lightweight, low-cost product that anyone can use to digitize permits, licenses, and internal processes; with no IT or technical skills required. As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with Catherine Geanuracos to talk about how CityGrows empowers local governments to bring workflows, forms, and other processes online.
How CityGrows works
CityGrows digitizes workflows and forms, allowing you to easily build a step-by-step online process that moves information between the citizen and government without the need for paper.
To start, a local government official creates a “workflow” in the system — this lays out all the steps needed on both the city and citizen’s part. You can add forms, reviews, and payments in whatever order matches your existing work process.
You can either copy and customize a template that another government has already created, or you can start from scratch and build a new workflow. Either way, setup is easy; a simple workflow can take an hour or two to build, and you don’t need IT skills to do it. Says Geanuracos:
“You can build a very sophisticated building permit with logic jumps and formulas and automatically calculate fees. And you, a normal person, can do that. You don’t have to have a coder, or a consultant, or us as a company do it for you. Because people inside of government understand their workflows (and how to improve them) better than anyone else.”
Geanuracos notes that while the platform is straightforward, the CityGrows team is available to help:
“Things usually change when you move from paper to digital; we can make recommendations about things to consider. Maybe you want to move a review step before the payment step if it’s a very complicated fee. Or if it’s something like a flat fee dog license, just have the applicant pay right away — you don’t need an extra review in there. And many times governments see ways to simplify their workflows when they bring them online.”
Once the workflow is set up, the city can add a link from the municipal website (or wherever forms are found). Citizens can then find the form they need online, fill it out, sign it, and even pay digitally. The forms then get kicked to the city to review — again, this is digital so it’s easy to track and there’s no dealing with paper.
The citizen gets automatic updates when things move from step to step — they can also log in at any time to check the status. This transparency makes life easier for everyone, says Geanuracos:
“This really reduces the anxiety and the emails and phone calls to government asking, ‘Where’s my permit? Is it done yet?’ That goes away because people just check online.”
This is especially helpful when processes have multiple internal stakeholders:
“A conditional use or special event permit sometimes goes to five to six different departments. So it’s pretty helpful, as an applicant, so see “Ok, I’m on step number five of six!’”
Cities go digital
Using technology to digitize permitting and other government processes isn’t new. But traditionally, the more sophisticated the software, the higher the price tag. This has put it out of reach for most small and medium-sized governments.
These days, it’s becoming essential that government processes be online. Geanuracos says:
“A lot of government is still running on paper, and especially now, with COVID-19, people are having to transition really quickly to remote work. Whether you're big or small, in order for your systems to keep functioning you have to move them online.”
Geanuracos hopes CityGrows’ low price tag — rates start at $125 per month for governments with small populations and scales from there — will make it the go-to platform for small and medium governments (or any size that needs them).
What’s more, the price is all-inclusive, whether a city uses CityGrows for one workflow, or multiple, it pays the same amount. In fact most cities start by using the platform for one thing and end up expanding beyond that. Geanuracos says:
“We’re starting to see governments use CityGrows for totally internal workflows. Emergency job reassignments, for example. Or what used to be paper sign-off processes, like for a new job requisition, people have moved those workflows onto CityGrows too. Employee evaluations … all sorts of things we didn’t anticipate it being used for.”
The results are significant, regardless of city size. Lake Barrington, Illinois (population around 5,000) had just set up online licensing in the platform when coronavirus struck, so they were able to adjust fees in real time and continue providing services from home. In prior years, Santa Monica increased the number of city block parties five-fold by using digital forms.
Empowering local governments
Beyond the day-to-day benefits of a digitized workflow, CityGrows is part of a new wave of innovators seeking to empower local governments to leverage technology.
Geanuracos says in addition to making their software faster, easier, and less expensive than legacy products, they also had to make it flexible enough for local governments to use it however best fit their needs:
“We wanted to give control to the people who understand the processes best. Those are the people working in government. I’m never going to be able to understand someone else’s building permit process the way they do. So we let those folks set up and manage their systems with our technology.”
This a trend we expect to see more of. Rather than governments getting trapped in a restrictive contract with an expensive technology provider, more of them are looking toward low-cost products that focus on doing one thing very well. Each government can then pick and choose a custom product stack based on what they need — not based on what a software company sells in a bundle.
Geanuracos sums it up perfectly:
“There should be more choice for governments. Vendor lock-in should not be why you have your technology. You should have your technology because it’s the best technology you can have, for the cost, for your government.”
We at Govlaunch agree, and as more technology choices become available, we’ll keep highlighting which disruptive products are helping local governments innovate.