None of us can get away from the Donald and Hillary show at the moment.

But for a totally different perspective I listened to an interview with Libertarian party presidential candidate Gary Johnson where he discussed devolving responsibilities to the states and local government. His argument was instead of a single monolithic solution for government programs at the federal level which may or may not be right, allow the fifty US states to do things their own way. Some will do a terrible job but learn quickly from those that shine. This got me thinking about how that philosophy would apply to delivery of government services to businesses in the United States.

How G2B innovation is thriving in US cities

The City of Los Angeles recently launched their LA Business portal thanks to $250,000 in funding from the US federal government’s Small Business Administration and its “Startup in a Day” initiative. SBA received applications from over 100 cities and counties for funding to achieve the goal of an online solution that enables an entrepreneur to apply for all permits and licenses in a single day.

Great goal. But after convincing the SBA to award them the “Big Dream” prize, how successful was Los Angeles and what can you learn from them?

  • For starters the design is great and renders well on a phone, really enhancing the customer experience. It does have one drawback with the primary navigation ribbon staying constantly on the page and overlaying content:Troublesome formatting on the Los Angeles City Business Portal

 

  • I’m surprised this wasn’t picked up in usability and user acceptance testing. But I’m more surprised that after being live for over two weeks that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, or his project team, hasn’t received customer feedback and had it fixed.
  • That said, the information architecture of the site is really well planned. You can see they spent the time to put themselves in the shoes of businesses. In fact the project team got out of the offices and visited business owners to better understand their issues with starting a business in Los Angeles.
  • You just can’t beat this level of engagement with customers. Too often due to project deadlines and other priorities engaging with businesses is missed or only given lip service. The innovation team at Los Angeles should take a bow for following through with this.
  • Another positive step forward is the open-source nature of what Los Angeles have developed to ensure other local government across the United States can do something similar.
  • This approach no doubt also helped with the choice of language used on the site. It’s easy to understand and throws bureaucratic speak into the trashcan!
  • Los Angeles builds on this further with nine starter kits for the most often started businesses like restaurants, building contractors, retail and more. They’ve re-used common aspects of starting up for all businesses and weaved in industry specific information which makes a great customer journey. Without seeing the back-end I hope they’re managing this with content assets that can be reused throughout multiple pages but published only once as a single piece of content. Otherwise they’re creating a content maintenance nightmare.

What can your government learn from LA's slip-ups

 

There was one small but significant downside to LA's starter kits with each having a “coming soon” icon for a downloadable checklist. Sorry but this is inexcusable. It’s not 1996 anymore where the equivalent of an animated under construction gif is considered acceptable. If that section of the content isn’t ready yet then Los Angeles County should have just omitted it, adding it in later. The customer wouldn’t know they were missing out on anything and when it was added later it would show that the LA Business Portal was continuing to enhance the site.

Finally while Los Angeles have done the right thing by bringing together the customer journey to link off to necessary Federal and State government business services I was surprised to see one glaring omission.

The main reason Los Angeles was awarded the “Dream Big” prize by the SDA was to deliver the primary purpose of “Startup in a Day”. Namely, starting your business in a single day.

But it’s clear that you can’t do this at the LA Business Portal. The key external partner for the project says that the startup guides achieve this, cutting the business registration process from several days to about 20 minutes. Unfortunately this is “tick a box” language. While the guides are a step forward in finding in a single location where to go next, it doesn’t mean starting up in a day. Far from it. If I was Maria Contreras-Sweet and were Adminstrator for the SBA I’d be quietly disappointed to see that the primary goal had not been achieved.

Achieving the goal of starting a business in a single day is unrealistic though when you consider the regulations and licenses of various agencies within the federal, state and local government. That said you’d expect Los Angeles would at least be able to link together their services seamlessly.

The main task of starting a business in Los Angeles is obviously registering the business. But no effort appears to have been made to integrate or even improve the Los Angeles Office of Finance’s new business registration process. This online service asks a lot of unrelated questions about what industry your business operates (“Are you engaged in the business of binding books?”, “Are  you engaged in business as a Mailing Service?”, “Are you in the business of teaching music?” etc.)

I endeavored using the service as a management consultancy. But none of the dozens of questions related to my business. The only one I thought might be related was “Do you conduct any service activities that are not described as 'Miscellaneous Services', as well as all other business activities not specifically taxed by other sections of the Business Tax Ordinance? Some examples are attorneys, dentists, barbers, auto mechanics, handymen, etc?” But there was no advice on what this meant. If you don’t know about the Business Tax Ordinance and how it applies you have no idea on how to proceed.

I am fully aware of a business owner that it’s still essential to understand how the law works and impacts your business, but it would be useful to make it clearer to people looking at starting a business in Los Angeles.

When I answered “No” to all the various questions the application wouldn’t let me proceed further, so I ended up saying yes the Miscellaneous Services question.

I received more questions, this time relating to whether I need police permitting. What was exasperating as a customer was the unnecessary questioning. I’d already answered what type of business I was in, yet the police permitting questions went onto ask anyway whether I was operating a spray tan booth, operating a skating rink or a car towing operator. The next page from the fire department asked if I was operating a school, or even a hospital nursing home.

The Startup in a Day initiative really should have looked at this clunky aspect of the experience. LA’s innovation team made the effort to get so much right, but when it came to what really mattered - the actual process of starting your business - they glaringly missed a golden opportunity for improvement. Not only does this make the customer journey a jarring end, but it also misses out on the chance to drive benefits for both the customer - getting started faster and having a more positive view of Los Angeles City - but it also misses out benefits for the city.

Practical steps to improve your businesses’ experience in your jurisdiction

Copy the good things done:

  • Put the customer at the heart of your offering
  • Listen to their needs and build the service based on their customer journey
  • Make it seamless, join up agencies into a single integrated service
  • Get some quick wins and then add incremental improvements

And avoid their mistakes:

  • A disjointed service application experience
  • Failing to understand the missed opportunities of getting things right to drive customer and government benefits.