The Private Tech Sector Goes Public

More companies than ever now offer digital services and tools designed specifically for government. Here are a few.
by | February 10, 2016
MuniRent helps government agencies share equipment, such as snow plows. (AP/David Goldman)

In the past, few software companies had the resources to sell solutions that met the unique needs of 50 states and thousands of cities and counties, all while navigating the often arcane rules of public procurement. The result was limited choices and high costs.

But thanks to a combination of venture capital, new technologies and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, dozens of businesses now offer digital tools and services designed explicitly for government.

The number of these firms has grown so quickly that there’s now a public-sector version of the Fortune 500. Called GovTech100, the list of companies and their products have names like ArchiveSocial, CitySourced, GovSense, mySidewalk and Urban Engines. Some of them mimic successful programs in the private sector, such as Airbnb and Amazon. But they all focus on a variety of public-sector needs like transparency and efficiency.

The GovTech100 list is compiled by e.Republic Labs, a division of Governing’s parent company e.Republic, Inc. It represents the ways in which government is changing how it uses technology and operates. Here are three examples:

Trading Equipment

The Oregon Department of Transportation, like other state DOTs, has a lot of equipment scattered around its many maintenance centers. Trying to match the demand for dump trucks and snow plows with the supply isn’t easy. Surplus equipment can sit idle as much as 70 percent of the time in some DOT centers, while other centers may rent equipment they don't have.

To make it easier to figure out what equipment is available and who can borrow it, the agency is using a software called MuniRent, which uses the sharing model popularized by Uber and Airbnb. The software lets one government agency share goods with another or, in the case of the Oregon DOT, one large agency share within its own divisions.

Approximately two dozen state agencies and city governments -- not just DOTs -- pay a monthly fee to use it. According to MuniRent co-founder Alan Mond, the service can reduce annual rental costs by 10 percent while boosting the use of idle equipment by hundreds of hours.

Buying Spaces

Central Falls, R.I., which declared and emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago, owns vacant lots and surplus government buildings it wants to sell for redevelopment. This is something on many cities’ wish lists. But selling such property can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, especially for cash-strapped jurisdictions.

That’s where OpportunitySpace can help. It’s like an eBay for government real estate. It lists available government land and buildings that can be searched based on certain criteria, such as location, size and type of property. Zoning information and photos can also be added to enhance the listing. The data appears in an easy-to-follow format, making it simpler for cities to manage their real estate portfolios and expand the number of prospective buyers.

In Central Falls, the city used OpportunitySpace to redevelop an empty parking lot for a dormant mill into an outdoor bar. The hope is that the bar will attract users for community gatherings, and then set the stage for redevelopment of the entire mill itself.

Subscribers pay a fee based on population size.

Breaking Down Taxes

Most citizens are still baffled when it comes to figuring out how their tax dollars are being spent. While large cities have made it easier, many smaller municipalities lack the resources to make it happen.

The online tool ClearGov, though, makes a town’s financial statement simple to understand with the help of visual tools. Launched last year, it’s already being used by cities and towns in California, Massachusetts and New York. It takes a government’s fiscal data, which often resides in various spreadsheets and accounting programs, and converts them into a series of snapshots that explain -- in plain English -- everything from revenue to per-pupil expenditures to debt. Towns can add more information for citizens to see and analyze.

Massachusetts uses it to aggregate financial information from every municipality, and ClearGov lets users compare one place’s finances with another.

Connor Read, the assistant town administrator for Easton, Mass., said the software tool has enhanced the town's reputation for transparency and gotten people more engaged with how its money is spent. Residents can post queries about particular financial details and public officials can respond.

“It’s really important that municipalities make information like this available from a citizen’s perspective,” said Read. “It really levels the playing field.”