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Moving Beyond Incremental Change for a Comprehensive Civic IT Overhaul

San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio, Texas Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

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In its new deal with the city of San Antonio, Accela is “responding to a much larger vision” of how the city wants to operate.

For the last three years or so, the city of San Antonio has been preparing to undertake a major overhaul of its civic communications infrastructure. Last week, the Texas city, the seventh largest in the United States, announced a major step forward on the plan. It selected San Ramon, California-based Accela, a leader in government information platform technology, as its partner in the the $14 million project.

It’s a big deal, for San Antonio and for Accela.

The South Texas city, home to roughly 1.5 million people, is re-doing much of its system at once. Accela will be setting up and more fully integrating health-care, land-management, licensing, legislative information and citizen outreach services, among others. This sort of grand overhaul isn’t how this kind of thing is usually done.

Most cities or counties remake their information and public engagement systems incrementally, over the course of years, agency by agency, department by department. And that makes sense on a lot of levels, sources involved in the project told Route Fifty.

It’s not easy to convince public officials to spend $14 million of tax revenue for a larger, comprehensive systems overhaul, they said, and even when you do, it’s hard to ensure the money gets put aside and saved for the job from one fiscal year to the next before the work begins. Also, executing a successful comprehensive overhaul on the scale San Antonio is undertaking takes more planning and a clear idea of exactly needs doing in the first place.

“No, this is not typical,” Drew Arnold, business development executive at Accela said in a phone interview. “In places like El Paso and Fort Worth, we have answered specific business needs. We’ve solved discrete problems for single departments or divisions. But in San Antonio, we’re responding to a much larger vision. The project is more comprehensive. It’s about how the planners want the city to operate. They want citizens to feel good about the city and the community, about the fact that they can get involved and get results.”

Rod Sanchez, director of development services for the city, is the person who has been pushing the big communications vision in San Antonio. He told Route Fifty he’s been working out his vision for years, watching city residents and employees grapple with information systems that “just don’t talk to one another,” as he put it.

“The information was silo-ed,” he said. “Say you’re in a meeting about a building site. You have information you’re getting through the building permits system. Someone asks a question about code for the address. Now you have to go find that information. Someone else asks about zoning and we have to switch over to the zoning system. These are basic and predictable questions. But we’re left switching back and forth. It’s really inefficient…

“I knew we needed a robust system where we could type in one address in the city and the whole history of the site would appear. That’s the kind of thing I wanted throughout departments for San Antonio. We just had to find out how to articulate what we wanted in a way that would be clear and comprehensive and then find a company who could build it for us.”

In an era where public data hacks, breaches and leaks dominate the news, Sanchez is sanguine about mixing public-sector data with private-sector companies. He says he understands watchdog concerns but that, in effect, reality has made the question about the need for public-private partnerships in the communications and information sector moot.

“I understand that a company can go bankrupt or get bought out or maybe that it is concerned with profit… Of course. But we’re going with a company with decades of experience and a track record we trust. We vetted them…

“The thing is, there really is no alternative,” he added. “A system this big, we just don’t have the capacity to get it done. Our in-house shop takes a long time to complete [software] projects. One employee works on building a solution. But that employee would leave. We look for a new employee to take it over. Then we train the new employee. Then the new employee leaves. It’s really frustrating. Accela, on the other hand, will put its platform in and we can scale it up rather easily. I don’t think any city has the kind of capability to do this in-house. It just doesn’t exist.”

Accela made news in Denver over the last few years for putting in place information services to handle licensing for the marijuana industry. It was a major project on a short timeline. The company started work in 2010, when the city’s medical marijuana code went into effect and it ramped up the services when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use two years later. Accela based its system on liquor licensing and, after a rocky start, the system was lauded.

Arnold at Accela agreed that his company employees will soon become “very enmeshed” with the city of San Antonio.

“We’ll be doing day-to-day interface throughout departments… But we’ve been doing this for 20 years. We have 2,000 public-sector clients. San Antonio had to feel comfortable with us. That’s the starting point. In the public sector, it all starts with risk aversion. You don’t want to end up in the papers.”

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

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