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California’s Emergency Preparedness Campaign Is a Blueprint for Government and Startup Collaboration

If 2020 is any indication, our government and the people in it need all the help they can get. From vaccine rollouts to supporting small businesses, federal and state governments are clearly overwhelmed by the challenges facing them.

While emerging technologies can’t solve problems in their entirety, they can almost always help. Unfortunately, governments and startups often don’t work together constructively. For startups, governments are typically incredibly difficult customers that are notorious for being slow, bringing with them a host of regulatory hurdles. Government officials often see startups as unproven and unable to scale sufficiently to meet constituent needs, and they won’t put their reputations on the line going to bat for one.

This was our operating assumption about startup-government relations until my company, Arist, worked with Governor Gavin Newsom’s Listos California campaign.

Arist is a platform for training people via text message. In May of 2020, Listos California reached out to us — via Twitter, of all things — with an urgent request: since in-person classes were not an option, Listos needed a way to deliver disaster preparedness training to residents who lacked internet access. The requirements were significant: the course needed to be taught in multiple languages using multiple messaging platforms, with the capacity to train tens of thousands of residents at a time.

As a small startup, our team was initially very hesitant about what working with such a large government would be like. Team members asked how many hoops we’d need to jump through. We prepared ourselves for months of red tape and delays, but the reality couldn’t have been more different than our expectations.

Within just a few weeks of our first meeting, Listos California worked with us to launch a text-based disaster preparedness course in 11 languages. The course trained residents on the steps necessary to get prepared in just a text a day. The course itself was built and deployed in seven days, and now serves thousands of disconnected residents every month with an average satisfaction rating of over 90% (you can try it for yourself by texting LISTOSCA to 72345). The state went as far as optimizing their mobile alert sign-up process for the course, showing a remarkable level of agility for an organization of its size.

Our team was impressed by the state of California’s efforts to meet the needs of its residents. Our partnership with the state of California is an indication that startups and governments can work together to rapidly innovate for the greater good.

Governments bring detailed knowledge and careful consideration of the needs of their residents. Startups bring technical expertise, cutting-edge innovations, and a can-do approach. Similarly, startups are built from day one to solve problems as they arise, while governments are engineered to make sure that the needs of everyone are met. The two working in tandem yield great results. Although compromises are always necessary, there has never been a time when positive government-startup collaborations are more necessary.

Last year demonstrated clearly that governments often face problems that grow faster than existing solutions. But, from finding our team via Twitter to adjusting to new last-minute technical requirements, California’s leaders worked with the agility of a startup. Our team is now optimistic about how innovative government leaders can be. Governments have a reputation of being difficult to work with sometimes. The Listos California campaign showed what is possible when public servants are at their best. They were remarkably accessible and open to innovation. That’s why we believe that Listos California is a blueprint for future startup and government partnerships.

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