Earlier this month, Government Executive Media Group (GEMG) announced the acquisition of The Atlas for Cities (The Atlas), a cutting-edge online community and market intelligence platform for state and local government leaders. Hilery Sirpis, Vice President at GEMG and Publisher of Route Fifty recently sat down with the co-founders of The Atlas, Elle Hempen and Ellory Monks, to discuss how the idea for The Atlas began, how data and collaboration are transforming the state and local government arena, and what’s next for The Atlas.
Hilery Sirpis: As publisher of Route Fifty, I am a huge fan of The Atlas, and I have been for quite some time. I’ve really been impressed by the state and local community that your team has established, curated, and cultivated, and I’m so looking forward to working on that together with both of our brands. What I’m most excited about around this partnership is the alignment of our missions.
Since the beginning of Route Fifty, we’ve always had a mission of connecting state and local government leaders to the information and best practices they need to do their jobs better, which is at the core of your mission as well. That’s why having The Atlas join the GovExec family and share such important missions together is really exciting. Can you tell us more about The Atlas for those who may not be as familiar with your product?
Ellory Monks: The Atlas is a free online community for local government officials and staff to do three things: browse case studies of best practices that are happening in local governments around the world, follow trending topics in local government, and post questions to one another to crowdsource ideas and advice. Since we launched in April 2019, we’ve had about 25,000, just over that, 25,000 local government officials and staff have engaged on The Atlas since then, we have about 3,000 of those folks engaged on The Atlas each month.
Hilery: That is super impressive, especially considering it was founded in 2019! I know you both built The Atlas after years of first-hand experience in government. How did your time in public sector inspire the platform?
Elle Hempen: It was core to it! Ellory and I met working in DC and as a part of the Obama administration. We loved working in public sector, though we didn’t love the pace so much, and we ended up leaving together and working as local government consultants for a number of years. We worked with cities across the country and around the world—really focusing on helping them innovate, adopt new software, and adopt new processes.
Going into that work, we really thought that the biggest pain points would be systemic, that it would be procurement and access to capital—how things were bought and paid for. To be fair, those are challenges, but the biggest barrier that we ran into was, frankly, a human barrier. It was the fact that government officials and staff are risk averse. They have good reason to be risk averse, but fundamentally what that means is that risk aversion really plays into every decision that gets made and it really impacts their ability to adopt new solutions. Figuring out a way to deal with that risk aversion was something that we really wanted to tackle, and that’s why we built The Atlas.
Hilery: I think we can all agree that these peer-to-peer platforms are becoming a major way we all interact, whether it’s in our personal lives or for work across industries. Now with work from home mandates, I think it’s even more important for us to have peer-to-peer platforms. Why do you think it’s so important this model is so important, and why it works so well, specifically in the public sector?
Ellory: This gets into what Elle was just talking about, which is the very, very understandable and justified risk aversion of local government officials. Ultimately, local government officials and staff rely on recommendations and validation from their peers and their colleagues just like the rest of us do. For example, I don’t go to a new restaurant without checking Yelp or Google.
When a local government official or staff person wants to go to their superior, whether that’s their mayor, city council, or department head, and they want to make an argument that they’re going to try something new or do things differently, they need to be able to point to another city, another local government, where that approach has been tried and worked really well. Additionally, they need to be able to say how much the project cost, what the outcomes were, who the private sector partners were, who was involved, etc. This kind of peer-to-peer or colleague-to-colleague learning is absolutely happening in local government today, but it’s happening in a really ad hoc and unscalable way. These conversations are buried in sprawling local government-only email threads that are impossible to search after the fact and they’re impossible to unsubscribe from. It’s horribly unmanageable.
At the end of the day, the market inefficiencies that result from this dynamic are horrific. Sales cycles in government, and in local government in particular, are notoriously long for a reason and it’s because of these market inefficiencies. For us, building a platform for local government learning and sharing, really has the potential to unlock the local government market writ large and create really meaningful progress on the issues that we care the most about. That’s why we’re in it at the end of the day, we’re in it to actually make a difference. That’s why we’re here, and we think that the way to do it is by making peer-to-peer learning more efficient and scalable.
Hilery: Clearly other people agree with you just based on the number of users who have already started engaging in the platform in such a short period of time. From our process trying to woo you guys, I know that you’ve generated quite a bit of buzz since the beginning, and we weren’t the only people who saw the value of what you were creating. Can you share a bit of why you chose GovExec and Route Fifty?
Elle: Absolutely! When you’re trying to make a market that is 20% of GDP more efficient, obviously there’s a lot of interest. We had always planned to go the traditional tech startup VC-backed route. We participated in 500 Startups, one of the premier tech accelerators in Silicon Valley, and got a lot of great exposure to that market. But, frankly, the conversation and the relationship with GovExec has really felt fateful from the beginning. When Tim first reached out to us over the summer, Ellory and I had actually been doing some soul searching, and said, ‘do we really feel like the traditional VC route is the right route for us? Is it the right route for our market? Is it the right color of money to really execute on our vision and our mission?’
The conversations with Tim were just so aligned, it was so clear that GovExec and Route Fifty had the same mission, just like you talked about Hilery at the top of this conversation. It was so clear that together we could grow more quickly, change the market more quickly, and deepen our market insights more quickly in a way that traditional VC money just wouldn’t enable us to do. For us, this was such an important and huge opportunity to get done what we wanted to get done in partnership with, frankly, a organization and a brand that we were avid readers of and avid followers of— it’s just such a awesome place to start and continue to grow and build on the momentum that we already have.
Hilery: I’m thrilled you chose us, and I consider us very lucky to have you part of our family! You’ve discussed reach to government leaders and deep market insights—these are all things that the contractor community is hungry for. Is that what you deliver now to your customers? How might that evolve over time?
Elle: That’s our value proposition. Right now, our company partners have access to a new digital marketing channel. It’s trusted, as Ellory said, by over 25,000 local government officials more and more every day. We work with our company partners to really focus on publishing case studies that highlight how their company is working with local government to solve challenges. We also provide market intelligence reports— things like trending keywords and top case studies. We’ve built out the opportunity for local government officials and staff to engage directly and build relationships with company partners as well through participation in virtual events and some of the social networking features.
The area that we’re really expanding into, and we’ll be doing more so with the support of GEMG and Route Fifty, is buyer intent data and market intelligence reporting. Together, we’ll be able to integrate all sorts of new data streams and refine our algorithm to deliver market intelligence at a scale and depth that, frankly, doesn’t exist in the government market today.
Hilery: I love that! I think that’s where we’ve always wanted to go, and to have The Atlas now joining us to share your expertise just makes us both better together. Let’s shift now to the state and local landscape going into 2021. It’s going to be such a critical time for our government leaders. I think we all know and agree about that. But what are some of the solutions and topics you’re finding to be the most top of mind based on the insights you already have?
Ellory: Local government leaders are definitely still preoccupied with COVID-19 and COVID-related fallout, especially budget ramifications. I think that’s been written about and talked about widely in terms of impacts to local government budgets. This is showing up all over our search trends, and it’s trickling across all of the data points that we collect. Topics that are being really heavily searched right now by local government leaders include pretty predictable topics like crisis communications and citizen engagement. However, there are also less obvious topics that are still related to this trend like automation, online permitting, and online payment. If you take a step back, these are really technologies and approaches that a lot of local governments have been thrown into overnight since COVID hit.
It’s also worth pointing out that searches related to federal stimulus and federal funding have really increased since the election. The way we interpret that data is that local government leaders are really craving clarity from the federal government about what kind of support, if any, they can be expecting in the near term.
Hilery: Are there any trends that you’re seeing around procurement, has searching for solutions slowed or accelerated? What about transitions around elections, has that changed what you’re seeing?
Ellory: We saw a huge uptick in search, not just searching, but also adoption of software and technology in the early days of COVID—March through maybe, May or June—where local governments were forced to adapt to new realities, just like every other sector of teleworking, overnight. In those first months, we saw that a lot of local governments were able to get emergency approval for the adoption of new software and technology that enabled their transition. And that’s where we saw enormous searching around things like virtual town hall meetings, for instance. Online permitting and online payment were also popular searches in the early days of COVID. What we’ve seen as the initial adoption has not ended, but local governments have come to grips with the initial effects of teleworking and of COVID-19.
What we’re seeing is that there’s been a big increase in searching related to software and technologies that enable monetary or time savings. I think this is reflective of serious budget concerns on the part of local governments. That trend has continued to hold through from spring to fall, and now I think we’re continuing to see it into the winter. It’s worth pointing out, and this is a fun connection point with Route Fifty, that the trend surrounding interest in technology or software that promises efficiencies or savings, and was held up by a survey we did with Route Fifty, in partnership with ELGL and Civic Plus. When we did that survey, there were about 400 local government officials and staff that responded, and 80% of them responded that software and technology that promises savings, whether that’s monetary or time, has become more attractive since the start of COVID-19.
Hilery: Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the federal government having to “do more with less.” Now, I think that’s what we’re seeing in state local government—how to do more with less while continuing to deliver to citizens. Can you share with us any examples in the last several months where The Atlas is empowering cities to do more with less and deliver on their mission?
Elle: We have tons of examples! One of my favorites is the city of Tijuana. They were looking to redevelop their downtown corridor to expand economic development in that area, and they came to The Atlas to read a case study about how our city, their neighbor, San Diego, deployed sensors on their streetlights to really understand how people were moving through their downtown to help drive data-driven decision making. They came to The Atlas focused on sensors, and discovered through the case study database that there were all sorts of other tools they could use—software tools, data tools—to achieve the same end, but potentially do it more quickly and at lower cost. When they went to go write the scope of work for the procurement, they ended up writing a much broader scope, enabling them to not just go and buy sensors that they could put on their streetlights, but also considered a whole range of options.
For the city of Tijuana, it allowed them to one, have a more competitive process, and two, actually get to the end result quicker and in a more cost efficient way to actually make the decisions they need to make to drive their downtown and their city forward. So, a great example of how cities are using The Atlas to really change their process and make their process more inclusive and cost efficient—ultimately delivering on the value they promised to their citizens and us as residents.
Hilery: Tell us a bit more about what’s next for The Atlas platform. What can local government members expect in the next six months? And what can private sector partners expect in the next six months?
Ellory: I’ll start with our local government members— this is the stuff that we love talking about the most! I think the most exciting thing that’s going to be coming down the line in the next six months is that we’re working on a brand new version of The Atlas in partnership with Route Fifty. We expect that we’ll release it later this spring. The goal of this brand new version of The Atlas is to create a one stop shop for local government learning. This means for example, that local government leaders are going to be able to follow trending topics like COVID-19 and receive relevant news articles from Route Fifty, case studies from The Atlas, discussions, and virtual events across both platforms, and get all of that delivered to their email inboxes in a customizable and empowering way. This is the work that just lights us up—it’s why we’re here!
The new version is going to create a bigger, more active network of local government leaders that are really eager to crowdsource ideas and advice, and who are signing up to help their colleagues in other cities pursue innovation, which is super exciting. It’s also going to create a bigger platform for those local government leaders to share their success stories and their career achievements too. The last thing to note is that this new version that we’re pursuing in partnership with Route Fifty will also create more access to new formats of virtual events. For instance, we host virtual office hours with special guests, similar to Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions on Reddit, and they provide a more casual venue for local government leaders to interact with experts. There’s no video component which can be a really compelling aspect for some folks.
Elle: For our company partners the next six months are, as Ellory said, really going to be focused on growth, and that results in all sorts of value for them as well. First and foremost, we’re going to be focused on scaling our reach with local government officials and staff. Route Fifty has a loyal subscriber base of over 100,000 folks, so we’re going to be working to collaborate and not only and engage with that audience, but build it together. Secondly, we’re going to be focused on deepening our market intelligence. In collaboration with GovExec’s researchers and analysts, we’re going to be working on combining data streams, refining our algorithm, and start unlocking new business insights that don’t exist at scale and depth yet. Last, but certainly not least, we’ll be focused on growing our capacity internally which will enable us to roll out new product features and new partnerships more quickly. We’re going to be growing the team to about 20 in the next year, so lots more to come. We’re really excited to be transforming the market together with you!