June 16, 2021
State of GovTech 2021

Nia Richardson:

Welcome to the State of GovTech 2021. I am Nia Richardson. I'm going to be the moderator for the founder conversation today for economic development and affordable housing. Today, you will get to meet some amazing innovators in the gov tech industry. They are all a part of the CivStart 2020 cohort. They're going to share some of their challenges, some successes, and really give some perspectives on the sector and where it's headed. Today we're going to talk to three different innovators. We are joined today by Thao Hill. He is the CCO for ProcureNow. We have Chris Offensend he's the Co-Founder and CEO for Qwally. We have Roshen Sethna, who is the Partner with Bloom Housing,by Exygy. So let's start with the conversation with some of the big things and I'll just even start with here. I work with the City of Kansas City and one of the big topics right now is housing, particularly affordable housing, particularly as we're kind of gone through this pandemic. And so I'm going to ask Roshen to come to the stage with me and give us a little bit of background about what this innovation you've been working on is doing and how it's helping some of the cities that you're working with.

Roshen Sethna:

Exygy partners with a bunch of different social impact organizations to design and build technology. We're a team of designers, software engineers, product managers that work on a range of issuesincluding affordable housing. So for the past five years we've been working in affordable housing and building out essentially a suite of digital tools that are actually open source. We don't want to be the only ones that are able to build and contribute to this this tool. So there for any jurisdiction that wants to better manage their housing, deliver their housing and report on what's actually happening with their affordable housing stock. They cities and counties can make sure that the housing is leased up fairly reduced vacancy rates and utilize the data for policy change as well. So the simplest way to kind of describe the tool is that there's kind of two sides to it. One is a website where affordable housing seekers can go to search for affordable housing and apply for it online. So you can see all of the housing in your jurisdiction. You can see the units available, you can apply for it through what we've built which is called kind of a common application. So similar, if you think of like the college common application, it's a general common app that you can apply, use to apply to any building in the jurisdiction. So that's an effort we did with housing developers and in jurisdictions to create that kind of common app. And so you can submit your application and track it. So that's one side and then the other side is aside for it's essentially kind of administrator tools. It's for housing developers, as well as city county jurisdictional staff to log in, manage the listings lease up the building with any applications coming in and things like that. The main benefit really to jurisdictions is that, you know, you can implement a lot of policies if you have an inclusionary policy in your jurisdiction. If you want to give preferential treatment to people who've been displaced or any other implement any other preferences and there's much more transparency. You have a hold on the affordable housing stock that is actually in your jurisdiction and how it's being kind of utilized or leased up. So that's a really quick overview of, of what bloom is. Personally, I was a former housing counselor in Texas. So this is like a project that's been really close to my heart that we've worked on at Exygy for quite a nber of years. And right now we started working on it with the City and County of San Francisco. So they actually had this idea to create this product. We built it for them and really early on, we collaborated with them to say, "Hey, we want to build this open source so it can be used for other jurisdictions." It's now being used in three other Bay Area jurisdictions. And we're talking to cities all over the country to implement it as well.

Nia Richardson:

Would you say there is somewhat of a data shortage when it comes to affordable housing and that this is kind of helping meet that need? You say a lot of good things and how it impacts policy and things like that. And I'm new within government. And so I walk in, I'm like, "Hey, so how are we making decisions?" would you say that this tool really helps push that? And can you give an example of maybe one city you're working with where it has made some impact policy-wise?

Roshen Sethna:

Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, there's such a range of policy. I would say there's programmatic day-to-day policy all the way up to legislative policy of like actual housing creation. So the tool has an impact on a day-to-day basis of like, you know, do we collect social security number in a housing application? Do we do those types of things? That relates really directly to a lot of equity questions and fairness questions and the housing application process itself. That's one thing I'll say, there's day-to-day policy. At a larger level, you can see who's getting housing what units tend to be popular when they go online, how many families are getting housed a month, and things like that. And so you can use it to influence to say, like, in the Bay Area, we know we have a housing problem. People don't necessarily need data to know there's a problem. It can help lend more specifics to say, "Hey, like we should go after this bond measure." One of the jurisdictions we work with has said like, "Hey, this could influence bond measures. This could influence how much funding we need for what types of units, and where should we build." Things like that.

Nia Richardson:

Yeah. And I, I wonder if you're seeing the issue being the lack of equity in how affordable housing and supply, or is it more so the, the issue being the shortage of housing? In Kansas city, there's a huge, I think it's about 27,000 housing shortage. Is it a little bit of both, or are you seeing one more than the other in some of the cities that you're working in?

Roshen Sethna:

Yeah. Like all of the above. We know there's a shortage. I think a lot of people try and tackle the shortage question with, "we need to build more!" Which of course we do. We also need to better manage what we have and make sure that we have a good handle on it and make sure those units are not either staying vacant, or people don't know about them, and things like that. So that's an often overlooked non-sexy side of it. Like, why don't we just dig into what we have and make sure it's available for people. The equity issue is, is front and center and housing. I mean, I think we see that if there'sstrong community-based organizations that are helping a particular demographic, whether it's, you know, racial or gender or age-wise that, you know, people have more access because they have a housing counselor or other people to go to. So we want to make the resources like really easy to find and easy to sort through. In the City and County of San Francisco, there's a lot of complex eligibility criteria. Like you might need to be a senior or a veteran. And so we want to make those things really transparent and easy because they were really hard to navigate.

Nia Richardson:

And then one last question with the system that you guys have: how beneficial is it for the end user, the person actually applying for the affordable housing, versus how it was before?

Roshen Sethna:

Oh my gosh. That's really the central reason that City and County San Francisco decided to build this. The process was paper-based. It used to take days to fill out an application. There were different applications for every unit and building in the cities and you had to get in, go in person and see if you had the right paper application, they would ask for a ton of documentation. The eligibility criteria, like I mentioned, were not that transparent. That was their impetus to say, "let's make this process more equitable for people." Now it takes 15 minutes online. You can copy the same application for different units in the city. So we really centered the end user in this process. And there were other users that the City incorporated, that housing counselors, other people that were involved, but we really put the affordable housing applicant and in the center.

Nia Richardson:

Citizens first, like governments — that's our job is to inspire. So thank you, Roshen, for the affordable housing conversation, and making sure we include other folks. And we have Thao Hill to join the conversation with us. Thao is doing some amazing things to where he is doing two conferences at once! People walk in his backgrounds because he's, he's multi-tasking right now. So Thao you have ProcureNow and procurement is definitely a big deal. I'm definitely trying to work on ways of how the city leverages buying power to grow our small businesses,Can you give us a little bit about what you do and how you're working with cities aroundProcureNow?

Thao Hill:

Absolutely. Thank you so much. And, and, you know, like was mentioned welcome to a virtual conference and also welcome to a real conference. I live in person conference I'm at the Florida Association of Special Districts Conference my first conference in over a year for reasons that we all know why. Roshen mentioned before just around like equity in the process. I wanted to just first start off by saying that like, a lot of times procurement, probably procurement pros and buyers government buyers they kind of get a bad rap. A lot of folks think that they're like the adversary that they're getting in the way of the process. You can agree with that sort of feeling that sentiment. And the reality is that they have the same goals that you do. Their goal is to take a taxpayer dollarsand to find the most strategic way for a city or a government to spend it.

Thao Hill:

And, and just to get the best value out of every single taxpayer dollar. Now, the problem is that it doesn't feel like that it feels adversarial. It feels like there are big barriers, it feels like blocks. And what ProcureNow realized is, is that it wasn't public procurement and their policies and rules and procedures that was the problem. It was the technology. Paper-Based, you know, 10 copies bound and mail or, you know, the systems that were being used were really hard to sign up for. In the one hand, we're all talking about fair and open. And then the other hand we were giving them processes and tools that were not fair, and that were not open.

Thao Hill:

They had big barriers and they were not equitable. They were not guided both internally for the folks who are working on these important projects within the cities. But also on the, on the supplier side, like, it was just, it's like anyone here, that's probably most of the people sitting in this room realize that it's just, it's, it, it feels hard. It feels difficult. It feels like overwhelming. And so what we now did is that we wanted to make, we had a goal of making the public procurement process intuitive and guided both for the internal customer and the, and, and the external supplier. And what we came up with was a way for government agencies to be able to collaborate. So if you're in an it department or you're in the clerk's office, or you're in, you know, whatever office and you want something and, and you want to make sure that you're getting the best value for the budget that you have.You can ask our software, you know, and answer some questions and based off of the type of purchase that you're making our solution would actually put all the right clauses and language in it, have all the right forms ready to go so that you don't have to worry about whether like your what's going out to the public is going to be compliant or not. And then we just built, like live chat features inside of the tool. So that number one, the process of working together on building requirements and specifications was a lot more enjoyable, a lot more intuitive. I know it sounds like, you know, a little oxymoronic, but it's true. And our customers will confirm that like, the time that it takes them to build an RFP or a bid gets shrunken by like 75 to 90%, like that's when you use the right tools and you can collaborate in the right way, you can actually build a better RFP or build a better bid. The number one complaint. It takes too long. It feels adversarial. So that's, that's was the first half of it. Right. And then the second half of it was the supplier, right? Like,I'm a local business, never done this before, you know, normally you would get like a 200 page PDF. I hear this story all over again. Like I get out my Memos, I get out my highlighters and I start marking, highlighting things and trying to figure out it's like a scavenger hunt that isn't fun.

Thao Hill:

It takes up more time than it does sometimes actually like deliver the good or service. We have reorganized this content that was created by the government agency, and presented it in a way that is readable and intuitive. We help vendors read, understand, and respond to RFPs and bids, more guided, more intuitively. The vendors that are applying in our system are saying, you know, "best experience ever." Because we're having them respond exactly in the way that the agency wants them to, what that does is that then create fairness, objective fairness, when it comes to the evaluation committees, the five or six or seven people who are looking at these, you know, 10, 12 proposals.

Thao Hill:

I mean, you have to put yourself in their shoes, right. That like that process for them, if you were to hand them like, you know, 12 proposals that are all bound and copied and like one person did it one way and the other person formatted in another way, how hard that is for them to objective score something. We just made it where it's like, when everyone is looking at a vendor response, the references are in the same place, their experiences are in the same place, their project approaches are in the same place. They can line up all the pricing side by side, can score it based off of lowest, highest, or somewhere in between. They use weighted scores to determine like how much are they going to weigh towards costs versus experience versus the references versus an interview. You can decrease the amount of time, significantly, to run a strategic sourcing project, and increase the ability for a small local business to compete for the same projects, that those bigger companies that have been doing this for years and years and years, then the city benefits the most and the end your local businesses benefit the most.

Thao Hill:

Right now we're connecting local businesses and cities in a way that they couldn't be connected before. Sometimes big companies have great solutions and like that, that's what you want to choose for. You want that experience for that project or that piece of software. But sometimes it's better, you know, to find that person in the local community who has that expertise, they just didn't know how to respond to an RFP or bid. And we don't want to deny them the opportunity to do wonderful work for the communities that they live in. That is what we've done at ProcureNow.

Nia Richardson:

It definitely sounds like it levels the playing field for businesses to actually come in. On the backend, it makes it much easier for staff to really pull these things together. Procurement is definitely a big, big deal, a big part of the conversation, especially now with money flowing down from the feds. Okay. We're going to put something in the infrastructure. Okay. What does that look like? And what does that mean for our businesses, particularly our small businesses and accessing those opportunities. Do you have any examples? And I don't know how many cities you've been able to work with with the product where you've seen some, some significant difference in who's responding and how they're making a decision, but it sounds like it creates a lot more transparency to, to say, how did you make that decision and give it to somebody.

Thao Hill:

Yeah. If you can go to our website, www.procurenow.com and go to our resources page, we actually just released some customer success stories City of Banning Palmdale Water, district, Mesa, public schools. The City of Norfolk is another one, The City Milpitas. With procure now, they were able to build the entire solicitation, collaborate on it, get it released within a day and get, and source their quotes and have it delivered in the same amount of time that it would, they would have gone if that, that, that, that their normal process would have taken them.

Thao Hill:

For them, it was like 17 days just to do the terms, and 2 to 17 days to do the entire thing. That's just the story that we hear over and over again, there is on the internal side, less hunting and pecking, less, you know, like passing word docents around less, you know, adversarial conversations. Yesterday we were in the City of Groveland doing a local vendor supplier fair, you know, with their public, with their procurement officer, something that they've never done before. The head of procurement said, "I just never had time to do this, you know, because it was like mounds of paper hunting and pecking searching and replacing, copying and pasting." Not only does she now get the opportunity to have the time to get out and talk with and connect with her local vendor community and educate them on how to do business with you know, with the city, but you can imagine that she enjoys her job a lot better.

Nia Richardson:

We have a tool that you have that really helps with the efficiency of how we operate as cities. I think Roshen, and you, have a great tool to look at how we could address equity in our policy making, especially around a big topic of affordable housing. I want to bring Chris in. I worked with Chris here in Kansas City, but Chris comes to the stage, give a little introduction about yourself, talk a little bit about what you're doing and other cities. I know we got a couple of things that we could go back and forth on about what you're doing here in Kansas City as well.

Chris Offensend:

Absolutely. Thank you. Yeah. yeah, so yeah, I'm Chris Offensend, Co-founder and CEO at Qwally. Qwally is a platform that helps cities provide effective, integrated and scalable support to local entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities. We really believe that city governments and local government are kind of best positioned to play this a central role in their local entrepreneurial support ecosystem to help their businesses get connected to the right city departments for, you know, if it's in terms of procurement or purchasing or something of that nature, or getting them connected to the right sort of technical assistance resources or providing that technical assistance selves, it's just how to make it easier to do business in a city.

Chris Offensend:

And we think that really happens when at the intersection of those small businesses, the city, and sort of the incubators accelerators, chambers of commerce, SBA funded organizations that, that comprise local local economies and local entrepreneurial ecosystem. So that's really the focus area for us as sort of, it, it maps to to a little bit about kind of what Todd was talking about, about helping guide people through the process. I think we really focus in the area of everything that comes before a supplier or vendors get, is getting ready to to become sort of vendor supplier to the city and, and get ready to sort of go through that on fun scavenger hunt.

Nia Richardson:

Yeah. And that's, and that's pretty much so how me and Chris met our city, I actually got to lead our startup and residency program. And so there were some departments that put out a call. I run an office where KC biz care, we assist in the technical assistance for people who are trying to get a business license and also how to procure with the city. So we're kind of like that liaison, we put a challenge out there and probably responded and the selection committee really was excited about what they were doing. And I have not, not been impressed by everything that they're doing. So they helped us develop some really, really great tools. Now I know we've done a lot. Which ones do you want to talk about?

Chris Offensend:

Well, I think there's a lot of ways we could go. It'd be great to sort of highlight the work that we did at the onset of the pandemic and sort of how we work together to help figure out how your office could operate and support the businesses in your community.

Chris Offensend:

It was one of the last in-person meetings we had was it was meeting you for the first time in your office. A pandemic hit and there was immediate awareness that we really needed to understand what was it that small and minority owned businesses really needed help with most. Sort of navigating you know, this whole paradigm shift that was happening around them. I remember we quickly changed gears from sort of where we had started on sort of focusing on the business licensing process and some of the zoning clearance work to really just focusing on setting up a very detailed survey that businesses could quickly and easily fill it out. And I think we got, you know, well over 200 or 300 responses to that survey. The questions that we had asked were trying to get a deeper level of detail and try to understand— rather than the top line, what's the problem? Is it access to capital? Is itfinding help for staff or employees? Or sort of dig a little bit deeper? And I think, you know, the, the areas that, that we saw were you know, in, in access to capital and seeing that we were asking questions about whether businesses had a relationship with a banker. And we discovered that businesses that did have relationship with a banker were 38% more likely to be approved for a loan and that when they were seeking those loans than those were seeking 8.3 times more capital when applying then those businesses that didn't have that relationship. In layman's terms, Qwally was able to help really build for us.

Nia Richardson:

We pivoted our office virtually to a one stop shop. We have our site, we have guides, we have customized checklists for people to understand the steps of starting a business, but it also gave us a tool. And the biggest thing that I discussed with you guys is data. You'll be surprised with all these tools that I've seen in this city. And I don't know what other cities are looking like, how much data we don't have and how strategic we need to be about the type of data that we get and, and working with quality has helped me better hone in to where I will soon be able to say, here's the state of small businesses here in Kansas City. I can break them down by category. I can break them down by however you want. Home-Based businesses, commercial businesses, black owned businesses, Hispanic owned businesses. What do you want and how do I bring all that data together? And that's what impressed us about Qwally's pitch — they really gave us a tool to do that. So I am really appreciative because this is really for my job. It's really helped. If I can give you any advice, please build that into it and make it efficient, not just for us on the backend, make it easy for our citizens. We get rated on how they interact with us as cities and as individual departments and as individuals ourselves. So help us make it easier for folks to really access things and make it open for them to do business with the city. I think you all have tools that really helped meet that. And I know Chris, you wanted to talk pretty quickly,because one of the things your tool did help us do is help us launch a program that we probably wouldn't be able to do without it.

Chris Offensend:

Following on from those learnings from that survey kind of distilled early in the pandemic I think that gave a lot of really good insight into sort of what to look out for. And as the next version of the Cares Act is passing, and it was the second round of PPP loans, and you seize that opportunity to sort of set up a program and a partnership between the city and the Heartland by Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas City process prospect business association to provide pro bono accounting services and technical assistance for small businesses that were seeking those PPP loans that maybe didn't get a chance to apply for one. Or they didn't know if they were eligible to apply for one in round one. I remember, you sort of brought this idea to us on a Friday. The Monday after we had something ready to go and it was really exciting. We're able to sort of help realize your program and sort of create the centralized application that the city would operate, and the whole application portal there, but also that it was connected on the backend of the system so that your partners, the Heartland chamber and prospect business association could have access and see those, those applications. And then they would sort of be doing the, sort of behind the scenes work of performing the matchmaking with the pro bono accountants. And then since they're doing that work, you know, you're, they're still able to kind of feed data into the system about how are things going? Is this business eligible, or how did this turn out? Maybe they decided not to pursue alone. And I think feeding that data back to you. So it was just creating a really streamlined way for you and the organizations that you already work with. Just do that a lot more efficiently and really collaborate across, you know, not even within the city, but within and without the city to tie together all the resources in the community.

Nia Richardson:

It's been really successful. And I would say just from that work alone and the data we've been able to collect from those from the survey, as well as the PPP prep program, it's allowing us to continue our work in recovery. And I just say for Chris's credit that program and just because of his system and the fact that we kind of build it just in time to get something going right now, we're almost at $2 million that we've helped our local businesses accessing capital through relief efforts and other loan efforts, but it was just having a program in a system or process set up for our businesses to kind of work through, to get what they need. But a lot of times it's about centralizing. So we got a couple of minutes left for our panel. And if anyone has any quick questions, we can try to jump in.

Thao Hill:

I really appreciate everybody joining us today. Thank you for hosting this and, and you know, the, the, you know, I have a special place in my heart for the city of Kansas city as well. So that's good to see that you're continuing to be a leader in innovation for cities. You know, to me like what, you know, says start to, to other folks who are like considering you know, doing something in the entrepreneurial gov tech space you know, start, it's been a wonderful way for us to connect. It's really important that when you're you know, out here on your own by yourself and you're, you know, you have a, you have a mission and a passion to do something that you can have a group of people that you can bounce ideas off that you can share your experiences with.

And also just like you know, as we meet more folks and we network more in local government that we can actually share networks with each other. And CivStart has been a wonderful place for that. You know, we get together on our Slack channels and we share ideas with each other and that's what it's all about. You know, we, we have a responsibility to provide modern responsible solutions to local governments and to bring our best thinking. And the folks here on the call that are part of Civstart are just a wonderful example of those types of folks who are bringing awesome ideas to local government technology. So thanks.

Nia Richardson:

Great job, and great product that you guys have ,Roshen. You want to go ahead and give your closing remarks?

Roshen Sethna:

Sure. Now I think some of the themes that I heard from all of us is just kind of this improving the "unsexy" processes and making things really effective, both for government and as well as the end users as well. And you know, something we're really proud of with bloom housing is our adoption rate. It started out kind of actually pretty high still in the eighties, but we were able to increase it to the 97% of people applying online. And you guys just have these things that are easy to adopt because you've designed them really well and build them for people that are actually trying to get stuff done. So that's something that just is really inspiring for me — people building in a really agile way, and all startups in our cohort are focused on that.

Nia Richardson:

Yeah. And again, I appreciate those of you who are out there building technology to help address real social issues in various communities. So I really applaud you all for going out there and trying to resolve those deep issues like that. And especially when it comes to me having equity into it. Chris, your closing remarks, you got any?

Chris Offensend:

Yeah. I mean, I'll, I'll definitely echo the sentiments of Thao and Roshen. In this cohort, we're all kind of bonded together by our just, you know, passion for, you know, the, this, what public institutions can do, you know, equipped with the right tools to, to, you know, make those unsexy things, you know, a more streamlined or more effective or make the unsexy sexy. I don't know. But but I think, you know, at the end of the day for, for me, I think one thing I always keep coming back to is just like the individual people that we get to interact with and also specifically kind of those small business owners and, and, and kind of the citizens themselves. I know we talk a lot about sort of how we work with our clients in government. What's ultimately driving us at the end of the day is, is, you know, the, the anecdotes and the things that we hear when we talk to people who are sort of using our software for the first time saying, you know, this, this has literally saved me months, or, you know, just weeks or months of time sort of getting me started helping me, you know, I would have wasted so much time trying to start my business or do this in a different way. And you know, just really helping people serve, you know, actualize and, you know, do perform that self-determination, that I think is, you know, a big part of you know, staples of, of our democracy and our institutions. So really, really just proud to play a small role in that very big picture.

Nia Richardson:

I mean, you all are bringing "sexy back." So we appreciate that. If there's any other government officials on this call, as someone who's really new in this industry, I would recommend that you make friends with startups, and you make friends with folks who are in the gov tech industry, because they can help make your work a lot easier. And at the end of the day, for those of you who are developers out there, please, in everything that you do, if you can create customer service as a part of it. How does it make it easier for us as cities to serve our citizens? You're going to have a win regardless of what it is. And so that's any advice I can give you, especially you guys who are on the conversation with us today, please just remember that as you move forward and great.

Nia Richardson:

Thank you for joining us. I had no idea what I was going to do, but this is a great conversation and thank you everybody for joining us.

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