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By Denise Linn

This post is part of the Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century City project.

Pretend you’re starting a business in San Francisco.

An intimidating string of questions springs to mind. Where do you start? How long will it take? How many hoops do you need to jump through? What are those hoops, exactly?

“Some people don’t know all the questions they need to ask,” says Regina Dick-Endrizzi, executive director of the city’s Office of Small Business. “Will there be waste-water impact paperwork? Transit impact fees? Permits for restaurants planning to use candles? There are hidden unknowns in this process that we would like to shine light on.”

The San Francisco Business Portal, a new city website launched this past November, aims to centralize those unknowns and help local entrepreneurs and prospective entrepreneurs successfully navigate through them. The Portal is a joint initiative between the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Technology, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the Office of Small Business. Described by its web designer as a “user-centered approach” to government service, the site connects information from many departments in a single, easily accessible place.

San Francisco is attempting to deliver information in accordance with the way that people live, rather than the way that government is organized.

By building a tool based on the convenience and needs of a citizen “end-user,” the City of San Francisco is attempting to deliver information in accordance with the way that people live, rather than the way that government is organized. In doing so, the city is elevating the usual find-and-seek burden that citizens often associate with the business registration process.

The Story of the Portal

The San Francisco Business Portal came to fruition as a result of mayoral support, general momentum behind innovation and technology, and cross-agency cooperation.

Since 2000, the city’s Small Business Commission has advised the Mayor’s Office on how policy proposals and changes would impact local businesses. Then, in 2008, the Office of Small Business was officially formed. Among other goals, city workers in the new office wanted to create a comprehensive online resource that businesses could use on their own time. With an improved economy and the arrival of new Mayor Edwin Lee (who campaigned on leveraging technology to improve city services), enough support came together to make the Portal a reality.

The first step was to organize internally. City government stakeholder meetings were held between affected regulatory departments, agencies, and local business constituents to make sure all key information was included in the Portal.  According to Jane Gong, the project’s manager and Program Director at the Department of Technology, about $657,000 was invested in this first stage of the project. The city partnered with Berkeley-based Tomorrow Partners for the Portal’s design. Once the website was created, the city publicized the resource through social media, Chinese and Spanish media, and partners like nonprofits and public libraries. A month after the site’s November launch, the Portal was seeing 428 page views and 103 unique users per day.

“Cities might compete to lure larger corporations, but we don’t compete so much at the small business level.”

Another ingredient to success? Some of the city workers most involved with the Portal had experience with small businesses, bringing a strong sense of empathy to the task of demystifying the complex business-government relationship in San Francisco. Dick-Endrizzi, for instance, worked for over 13 years in a small retail business. Gong formerly served as a counselor with the Office of Small Business, where she directly assisted entrepreneurs navigating the city’s system. “Having that understanding of the needs of the business community and the institutional knowledge of our complex permitting process made this an extremely rewarding experience for me,” Gong says.

For now, the Business Portal stands out an innovative city government project, but one that can be easily replicated elsewhere. “Cities might compete to lure larger corporations, but we don’t compete so much at the small business level,” Dick-Endrizzi says. “Our best practices – and those from cities undergoing similar projects – can be shared.”

Refining and Expanding the Model

When citizens visit the Portal, they are presented with information organized in accordance with the way they think, rather than the way city government operates.  Headings reading “Start a Business,” “Manage Your Business,” and “Grow Your Business” are some of the first text a visitor’s eyes run across. One click from the home page, a user can access a listing of important dates and deadlines for business owners, a searchable page for permits and licensing, and a page with downloadable “starter kits” for the most popular types of businesses a citizen might want to open.

Screenshot of the San Francisco Business Portal website

It is important to note that, although the Portal helps citizens navigate a complex system, it does not help make that system less complex. For instance, the Portal does not yet streamline permitting or reduce paperwork. The Office of Small Business, the team that runs the Portal, and the Controller’s Office of San Francisco are working together to identify potential opportunities for streamlining process. For now, the Portal achieves the important first step of streamlining information.

The Small Business Office has already identified some specific areas for possible improvement. For instance, in the future the Portal could include online profiles so businesses can sign in, save their information, and continually manage it. For users filling permits online, information could be pre-populated to reduce redundant work. The Portal could also allow businesses to use electronic signatures.

For now, the city is watching to see how people use the Portal and which resources are most popular and helpful to the intended audience. The team that runs the Portal is also creating a user survey to understand how the website’s content and functionality can be improved.  

Small businesses and entrepreneurs are not the only users of government services that can benefit from centralized and streamlined information online.

While other cities might be interested in creating their own business portal, they might also be interested creating a very different website inspired by San Francisco’s approach. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are not the only users of government services that can benefit from centralized and streamlined information online. Extending the “customer service” lens, we might consider parents of school-aged children, renters, seniors, new residents, or new homeowners to all be city government “customers who must navigate complex processes and information.

“Many governments are beginning to take the user-focused approach and rethinking the way they deliver information and services,” Gong says. “Rather than treating our users as constituents, we need to think of them as customers and identify the most efficient way to interact with those that we serve.”

About the Author

Denise Linn

Denise Linn is a MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her professional experience thus far has revolved around closing the digital divide and implementing local Internet access projects. As a 2014 Summer Ash Fellow with the Gig.U project, she assisted city leaders seeking to build or extend high-speed fiber networks to spur economic development and civic innovation.

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