Since the onset of the pandemic, a bevy of healthtech, edtech and fintech (even beertech?) startups emerged or expanded, seizing the opportunity to help companies integrate technology more into their services amidst an increasingly virtual world. But while these categories of startups have claimed center stage in the news, the wheels are turning in other more under-the-radar areas as well—like govtech.
Local governments had to quickly adapt to the pandemic by offering virtual options to participate in meetings. Offering remote options makes it Inherently more accessible and convenient for people to engage regularly with their local government. Jay Dawkins has been screaming this from the rooftops for years, which is why he founded Raleigh-based startup PublicInput, a community engagement software for governments.
On the PublicInput platform, local governments can conduct surveys, host hybrid meetings, communicate with the communities they serve and ensure they are engaging a wide range of voices via the resident CRM (customer relationship management) database. Dawkins originally founded PublicInput—a new addition to Scot Wingo’s 2021 Tweener list—in 2014 as a means for local agencies to collect public input on development projects.
But the legacy Dawkins wants to spread with PublicInput is much more than just a means for local government to gather information. He wants to promote what he calls the “next wave of democracy”—or “collaborative democracy”—which focuses on two-way communication between constituents and their government.
That’s why the communications cloud on PublicInput enables two-way email, SMS and social media communications. Through newsletters and texts, for instance, agencies can keep citizens updated on an array of matters, such as when a transit line is down or when a new project is being voted on.
“Democracy has to evolve to meet the expectations of a modern world,” Dawkins said. “Today, people expect to be able to have a way to interact with the government or any large organization digitally, and the government’s been a little bit behind the curve there. So our vision, and why we think this needs to exist, is that for democracy to work in the next phase, ultimately governments have to have the ability to maintain relationships with people at scale.”
A key part of PublicInput’s mission is reducing barriers to participation, Dawkins said. Before making a decision, it’s critical for governments to collect input from a wide range of voices rather than a small handful. To help with this, PublicInput offers CRM and Equity Mapping services, where agencies can overlay a map of their respondents with a map of the general population and compare demographic data analytics between the two.
In order to actually reach beyond the usual handful of folks, agencies can use the platform to host hybrid meetings. Folks can use Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams or even call in on their phone to participate in and comment during meetings.
About 30 of PublicInput’s customers currently use it for hybrid meetings, but Dawkins expects that number to increase.
“Hybrid meetings are the future,” Dawkins said, “because even as councils and groups start to move back to in-person, the public will still really expect that they’re going to continue to provide the opportunity to participate remotely. It’s all about accessibility.”
Making local government accessible for everyone
Dawkins has been closely tied to local government his entire life: his grandfather, J.L. Dawkins, was mayor of Fayetteville from 1987-2000, and his father, Johnny Dawkins, was reelected to serve on Fayetteville City Council in 2017. Fascinated by how the government could shape environmental outcomes, Dawkins studied civil engineering at NC State. Dawkins then worked as a consultant for various development projects throughout his career, including as a transportation engineering consultant for eight years until 2014.
What Dawkins noticed most as a consultant was how a lot of the decisions regarding the way cities are planned, roads are built or projects are designed are based on what the public has to say. Being a millennial, he wanted to bring that into the digital age somehow, he said.
After Dawkins worked with some city planners in Raleigh on the original version of the software—which was then called “Cityzen”—the City of Raleigh used it in a pilot test to gather input on a development project from nearby residents. Seven bootstrapped years later, PublicInput has about 30 employees and is used by 130 public agencies in 37 states, including the cities of Raleigh and Charlotte. Other types of organizations such as GoTriangle, Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization and the N.C. Department of Transportation are also customers, Dawkins said.
At its essence, the aim of PublicInput is to help local agencies have a central database for all their interactions with the public, Dawkins said.
“We believe that the next evolution of democracy is more collaborative and built upon consistent, two-way communication as opposed to showing up once every two years and checking the box,” Dawkins said. “Ultimately, every participant in the process has value and information to contribute to decision-making. Our job as a technology is to make sure that that value and information can be transferred between people and government.”