A License for Civic Engagement: Cutting Red Tape and Kick-Starting Business

The score of recent decisions from Washington, D.C., certainly offered millions of Americans much to celebrate this 4th of July. But amidst the flurry of breaking news, one announcement that you may have missed has the potential to transform our relationship with local government, not to mention reduce migraines.

A new initiative announced by President Obama aims to cut bureaucratic wait times to less than 24 hours for a business permit or license. It's no small feat but this unprecedented initiative has the potential to deliver a huge upside for new businesses, our economy, and perhaps, government approval ratings. It's called "Startup in a Day."

There isn't much an aspiring entrepreneur dreads more than having to deal with the long and complex government permitting and licensing processes, or so called, "Red Tape." After filling out stacks of paperwork -- sometimes even the same form for multiple departments--citizens stand in line for hours at City Hall, then wait weeks, if not months, for a response, only to find out that they mistakenly filled out form 510-A, when they were supposed to fill out form 510-B.

Before opening a business, there is a long list of to-dos an aspiring business owner must check off in order to be in compliance with local government regulations.

In many cases, a business owner has to find and then check the zoning laws from the planning department and other agencies, apply for permits, pay the necessary fees, schedule inspections, and purchase liability insurance. And if they don't have all of their ducks in a row, the city will issue a violation or citation, simply because the person could not find out what was required until it was too late.

This new initiative challenges cities to use technology to streamline their local permitting and licensing process, in the form of a competition. The objective is to make it possible for companies to get government permits and licenses online and be ready to open a business in just one day. The White House has put forth more than a million dollars in prizes, and partnered with the National League of Cities to share best practices on how cities across America can transform their processes.

For citizens not interested in opening businesses, there is plenty of tedious government inefficiency woven into other experiences, which could benefit from this type of initiative. Remember your last trip to the DMV? Long lines, inefficiency, lengthy forms, and the list goes on. One would think by 2015 we would have figured out an easier way to do something as simple as renew your car's registration or driver's license.

The DMV and most permit application processes are not only painstakingly slow, but they are also the primary interactions many Americans have with government outside of paying taxes or jury duty. So it should come as no surprise that Americans have ranked government dissatisfaction as the "most important problem facing the U.S."

So how can we fix this problem? One solution would be to improve such basic government services to meet the expectations of Americans in the 21st century. A new wave of tech savvy city leaders and a growing number of civic-minded technology companies and organizations are helping cities, counties, and states do just that. They are cutting through the red tape and delivering government services designed for citizens accustomed to Amazon and Uber - government services that are online, easy to navigate, fast, and available 24/7/365.

A number of cities across America have gotten a jump on the competition. Not surprisingly, Palo Alto, California is already up and running with a modern, citizen-centric permitting and licensing website that answers the President's call to action. Palo Alto could sign the President's pledge today and declare "victory" tomorrow. And other birthplaces of innovation are on a similar path.

Late last year, the City of Boston got on board with this revolutionary idea and partnered with Accela and OpenCounter to streamline their licensing and permitting process. Specifically, on average, Boston issues 86,000 permits a year - that's a lot of paperwork to process and a lot of small businesses that aren't opening if that paperwork is stuck waiting in stacks on someone's desk. Boston is one of eleven cities that have signed up already for the President's "Startup in a Day" pledge.

Government Services as Easy as Google

While the president's "Startup in a Day" initiative targets the regulatory processes of starting a business, the same spirit of innovation should be applied to every citizen and government interaction. By overwhelming margins Americans want their government experience modernized. A recent poll conducted by Cal Poly's Institute of Advanced Technology and Public Policy found that 91% of California voters would support requirements that all government documents be available online and through "a search engine similar to Google." These feelings are not unique to the Golden State.

You can hail a cab, have food delivered to your door and even find a date right from your smartphone. Wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy to renew your car's registration, apply for a hunting and fishing license or obtain a building permit from government? Thanks to a growing number of innovative cities, civic technology companies and challenges like the latest from the White House, we all will hopefully be spending less time in line at City Hall.

If you think your experience with City Hall needs an upgrade, call on your city to take the "Startup in a Day" pledge. We can use technology to help get American businesses "open for business." This won't miraculously change everyone's opinion of government over night, but it's a start.

A version of this op-ed was originally published in the Contra Costa Times.