Scott Burns

Messages through many paths

GovDelivery provides digital tools to connect governments and citizens

As told to David Hubler

GovDelivery, a provider of government-to-citizen communication solutions, is the brainchild of Scott Burns. He co-founded the St. Paul, Minn., company in 2000 to help governments provide their citizens with better access to relevant information through e-mail messages, wireless alerts and Really Simple Syndication feeds. The company’s Digital Subscription Management solution is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that provides federal, state and local governments with a fully automated, on-demand public communications system. GovDelivery is used today by government organizations worldwide, including the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Labor, State, Health and Human Services, and Commerce departments, and the British Parliament.

At Dartmouth College, I majored in economics and environmental studies. I didn’t get interested in technology until after graduation in 1997, when I started to see how [information technology] could be used to transform organizations. I worked as a consultant at McKenzie and Co. for a couple of years during the height of the dot-com boom. But I had a long-term vision of getting into the public sector with my own small business.

With my college ski racing buddy Zach Stabenow, a former member of the U.S. ski team, we started a business called GovDocs in 2000 with some private money and a small venture capital investment.

We built our platform with the idea of becoming a middleman between government and business by posting government documents online that specifically related to business issues. Today, GovDocs is a division within GovDelivery and it is one of the largest providers of minimum wage information postings in the country.

Our home town of St. Paul was our 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 them manage out-bound communication with the public by e-mail, wireless devices and other types of messaging.

To me, technology is the biggest opportunity we have to make citizens better citizens and government better government.

It took a couple of years working with state and local agencies to build up the necessary experience to go after federal clients. We started our first pilot with a federal agency, the State Department recruiting office, in 2003. Soon after we began working with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and then the Labor Department.

GovDelivery itself is a Web-hosted system just like Facebook or Twitter or any of those services. 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 [FEMA], the city of Berkley, Calif., or the British Parliament – everybody is using the same basic platform.

The federal government now sends about 140 million email, text messages and wireless messages per month through GovDelivery.

Citizens select the information they want from the agency’s Web site and our platform sends out that messaged information. We’re functioning in the background, helping the agency by providing the software platform to manage its communications process.

So when you get an email from the Federal Reserve Board telling you that interest rates have changed or from the FBI informing you of a new cyber crime alert, that email is flowing through GovDelivery.

We developed our pricing model by listening to our clients. Federal customers told us they were not willing to pay by message unit. That could be prohibitively expensive if, say, FEMA had to pay tens of thousands of dollars one month to send out email hurricane alerts. So we offer our clients a fixed monthly fee for unlimited usage that is based either on their population, in the case of local government, or on Web site usage, in the case of federal clients.

We’ve been self-funded since 2005 and have roughly doubled in size the past few years. We’re now in about 30 states and the U.K. and have about 54 employees, three of them in Washington, D.C. We are the No. 1 sender of government-to-public e-mails. Our objective is to continue growing and have offices in major locations in the U.S. and abroad.

There is enthusiasm about digital communication in general but the election of President [Barack] Obama is adding to the momentum for better communication with the public. We’ve had a major upgrade in our system and in the additional Web 2.0 capabilities we offer because of the enthusiasm of the new administration.

It’s a good thing for us when government is communicating more effectively with the public. Government is a big ship and you have to steer it a little more slowly sometimes than you do more nimble small companies.

But as long as government is communicating more with the public and our system is evolving to provide current services, our role continues to expand.


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