The founders of government-to-citizen communications company GovDelivery Inc. discuss how they have harnessed the power of Web. 2.0.
Scott Burns co-founded his government-to-citizen communications company, GovDelivery Inc., in his home town of St. Paul, Minn., in 2000 to help government agencies provide people with better access to important information.
“To me, technology is the biggest opportunity we have to make citizens better citizens and government better government,” Burns said.
With some private money and a small venture capital investment, Burns and his college ski team buddy, Zach Stabenow, launched GovDocs to post online government documents that specifically relate to business issues.
Stabenow, whose work experience includes a stint as an account manager at CA Inc., is in charge of marketing GovDelivery services to the public sector.
GovDocs is now a division of GovDelivery and one of the largest providers of minimum wage information in the country.
GovDelivery’s Digital Subscription Management solution is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that provides federal, state and local government agencies with a fully automated, on-demand public communications system through e-mail, wireless alerts and RSS feeds, Burns said.
Although many federal agencies still view cloud computing as a technology of the future, GovDelivery has been providing cloud computing as a service since 2003, he said. “We’ve got over half the federal agencies using it,” he added.
That makes GovDelivery one of the most widespread users of cloud computing in the federal government, he added.
GovDelivery is a Web-hosted system that is similar to Facebook or Twitter. “We’re a part of the Web 2.0 arena by default because our service is hosted, so everybody — whether it’s [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], the city of Berkley, Calif., or the British Parliament — is using the same basic platform,” Burns said.
Not coincidentally, St. Paul was Burns’ first client. “We formed a public/private partnership to roll out the service, which is very similar to that which we now provide to more than 300 government entities; that is, helping [the city] manage outbound communication with the public by e-mail, wireless devices and other types of messaging,” he said.
In April, Bloomington, Minn., became a GovDelivery client when it unveiled its City in Your Mailbox e-mail service to residents. The service provides information about road and bridge repairs, athletic and park events, and property availability.
Taking the plunge
Other GovDelivery clients include Minneapolis; the U.S. Labor, State, Commerce, and Health and Human Services departments; and the British Parliament.
Burns and Stabenow needed several years of work with state and local agencies before they believed they had the experience needed to enter the federal market.
“We started our first pilot with a federal agency, the State Department recruiting office, in 2003,” Burns said. Soon after, the company began working with the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service and then the Labor Department.
GovDelivery now sends about 140 million e-mail, text and wireless messages a month for the federal government. “We are the No. 1 sender of government-to-public e-mails,” Burns said.
Self-funded since 2005, the company has roughly doubled in size in the past few years and now also has offices in Washington, D.C., and London.
GovDelivery recorded more than $5 million in revenue in 2008, Burns said, and he added that the annual growth rate this year has exceeded 40 percent.
“We’re now in about 30 states and the U.K. and have about 54 employees, three of them in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Our objective is to continue growing and have offices in major locations in the U.S. and abroad.”
GovDelivery operates in the background, providing agencies with a software platform to manage their communications process, he said. People can select the information they need from an agency’s Web site, and the platform sends the information.
For example, when the Federal Reserve Board issues an interest rate change or the FBI puts out a new cyber crime alert, an e-mail flows through GovDelivery, he said.
When setting up a pricing structure, federal clients told GovDelivery they would not pay by the message unit. “That could be prohibitively expensive if, for example, FEMA had to send out tens of thousands of e-mail hurricane alerts in one month,” Burns said.
So GovDelivery charges a fixed monthly fee for unlimited usage. Federal clients are billed according to Web site usage, and smaller local governments pay based on their population.
“What we recognized prior to our association with GovDelivery was that, as far as pursuing our customer satisfaction online goals were concerned, the U.S. federal government fell down in this area of being able to reach out to the American people,” said Ron Oberbillig, director of the Federal Consulting Group at the Interior Department's National Business Center.
The Federal Consulting Group conducts hundreds of customer satisfaction surveys annually to measure how well government agencies are using communication tools to inform the public.
Oberbillig said that before the advent of GovDelivery, federal agencies “used primitive e-mail lists, listservs, [and] kind of unguided RSS feeds in order to communicate. Those techniques are helpful but rather inefficient and labor intensive, and therefore expensive.”
GovDelivery “revolutionized the ability of federal government Web managers to reach out and proactively communicate with those that want to get the latest and greatest information,” he said, citing the public’s need for crucial information on pandemic flu prevention and natural disaster warnings.
GovDelivery services facilitate transparency, accountability, feedback “and, most importantly, proactive customer communications,” Oberbillig said.
Hunt for partners
The company is now looking to partner with some of the larger federal integrators. “We are really trying to reach out to the integrator community and make them aware of the services that our platform provides,” Burns said. “We’re a pretty small company, and it would be highly beneficial to our clients if the integrators got better engaged with us.”
Burns said President Barack Obama’s determination to make government more transparent is aiding the push for better communications with the public.
“It’s a good thing for us when government is communicating more effectively with the public,” Burns said. And as long as it continues to do so, “our role continues to expand.”
However, Burns said he recognizes that there are no guarantees of continued success. “Government is a big ship,” he said. “You have to steer it a little more slowly sometimes than you do more nimble small companies.”