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Breaking the Code

santa_cruz_view2City hopes to integrate technology with government through partnership with nonprofit Code for America
Code for America, a nonprofit aimed at “helping governments work better for everyone with the people and the power of the web,” announced earlier this month that Santa Cruz made the list of finalists for its 2012 city partnerships.

Santa Cruz joins nine other cities, including Austin, Texas, Detroit, Mich., New York, N.Y. and Macon, Ga. as finalists for the CfA partnership, beating out Balboa Park in San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clarita, Calif., as well as the U.S. Department of State, among others. However, Santa Cruz is not yet guaranteed a spot; following a fundraising period, CfA will narrow down the finalists and announce the selected five to eight cities this fall.

“[Code for America is] a prestigious program, with an excellent track record in helping cities integrate new technology to help residents and businesses alike,” Scott Collins, assistant to the City Manager writes in an email to GT. “City council and city staff are thrilled to be the only West Coast finalist this year and the first city under 100,000 population to be a finalist in the history of CfA.”

Peter Koht, economic development coordinator with the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency, says that the CfA application is just one way the city is going about incorporating new technology with government.

He adds that Santa Cruz has been a leader in innovative uses of technology for local governments for a few years now, having won a 2009 Gov 2.0 Award in “Government as a Process” for its community feedback portal on the city's website that gives residents an opportunity to offer constructive suggestions about the city’s fiscal problems.

“We want to turn our website from a phone book to a toolbox of government services,” says Koht, who noted that residents can now pay parking tickets and utility bills online. “Technology can make government accessible and easy to operate.”

The Santa Cruz City Council formed a “tech taskforce” to evaluate community needs and review a list of possible projects on which the city could collaborate with CfA. The group chose to go with the project that would hold the most value for other cities, to make it a strong CfA candidate, and submitted a plan to develop a web application that would simplify the hectic and time consuming small business permitting process. The web application would be like the Turbotax of small business permitting, integrating all of the forms into a user-friendly interface with an output of all of the necessary permits.

“The process [of starting a small business] can end up becoming unintentionally frustrating,” says City Councilmember Hilary Bryant. “This will be a way for the city to say to people coming in that Santa Cruz really is a great place to do business. It will be sort of a reversal of the narrative that it is difficult to do business in Santa Cruz.”

Nut Kreations owners Mina and Brody Feuerhaken opened the new downtown shop on Lincoln Street in February. They agree that the process was confusing at times.

Mina, who describes Nut Kreations as an “adult candy store,” spent time carefully researching all of the steps involved and sought guidance from the Central Coast Small Business Development Center in an effort to simplify the process.

“It was unclear if we needed the health or building permit first,” she says. “Then you're told to get a fictitious business name which requires you to say what kind of business it will be, LLC or partnership, which is something you have to apply for and have already formed the organization. We had to [go to] the County [Department of Environmental Health] first but you can only talk to someone between 8 and 9 a.m., so it’s all these steps and you end up having to backtrack.”

Another downtown business owner, who wished to remain anonymous, ran into months of delays when what was initially planned as a three month process became six months. He was shocked to receive finalized permits just days before opening at a cost of $8,000.

“There are people at the city and within city council who want to make opening a business work, but the city doesn't do anything to make it easier for you,” he says. “Everyone talks to you as though you should already know what's next in the process, but no one can direct you to what is next, and it’s unclear how the departments connect … it would have been helpful if everyone was on the same page.”

He questions whether a CfA partnership that will merely change the interface, rather than addressing the communication and process, is the right way to go about fixing the permitting issue.

“Software doesn't solve the problem. A step-by-step check list and someone at the city to advise people through the process would do it,” he says. “Not software programmed by three coders over the course of a year—that sounds ridiculous, it should be more simple than that.”

Key criteria for CfA/city partnership projects are openness, efficiency, education and participation, and applicants are also judged on funding to support the proposed projects, the government’s commitment to the partnership and the ability of the proposed project to be adapted for use by other cities.

Abhi Nemani, director of Strategy and Communications at CfA  “[Fellows] have been able to develop useful applications, and just as importantly, they have sparked interest in communities in those cities to get involved through coding, designing, or just pitching in,” Nemani says. “We're pleased to see the impact extending far beyond just lines of code. One of our cities, Philadelphia, has decided to apply again for 2012, and is a finalist.”

Philadelphia, who won a partnership in 2011 to develop tools that will help residents organize around community projects and initiatives, is currently a 2012 finalist seeking to coordinate civic engagement efforts by incorporating a communications and information- sharing network that would connect civic leaders.

Partnering cities are required to provide financing for the project at $50,000 per fellow who will work on the project, which can vary between three and five computer coders. Santa Cruz's proposal calls for three fellows, which means a $150,000 price tag. Where the money would come from has not yet been determined; however, the city hopes that most, if not all, of the money can be generated through fundraising.

“There is a lot of community support around embracing new technology,” says Collins. “The intention is to reach out to the community and fundraise through the end of September, at which point staff will bring the issue to city council. It will be determined at that time what portion, if any, the city will need to cover and where the funding will come from.”

2011 was the first year of the CfA fellowship program. Twenty fellows were selected from 360 applicants to work on projects in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle. The fellows work for 11 months in collaboration with city governments to develop a web application to solve a civic problem identified by the city.

When the projects are finished, the completed applications will be released as open-source for any city government to use or adapt.

“This would make us a leader in trying to solve this problem, not only for Santa Cruz but other cities across the country and I think that's what's really exciting about this,” says Koht.

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