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Private Companies The Government Turns To For Help

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Who's the government going to call? Small business! | AP

Who does 911 call when they need help?

Tom Axbey, the CEO of Rave Mobility Safety, an eight-year-old company with a two-year-old product called Smart911, says lately they've been calling him. Designed to improve the 911 emergency telephone systems, Axbey's product allows the public to create a safety profile at Smart911.com that helps first-responders better asses a situation, before they arrive. As long as their community participates in Smart911, rescuers can learn en route to the scene that that a person suffers from say agoraphobia, or that their child is allergic to penicillin or an ailing grandmother has dementia.

It may sound simple but it's the kind of product uniquely born from a public-private union. And as technology advances and government budgets tighten, citizens can expect to see more similar private and public partnerships.

"We're not changing 911, which will work the way it always has," Axbey says. "We're just trying to enhance it."

While partnerships between private companies and public sector organizations are not new, a new form of union seems especially ripe for certain tech companies that can out pay public organizations and foster an environment of innovation.

"The demand for computer science graduates has gone through the roof," says Avi Seidmann, professor of operations management at the University of Rochester. "It's very difficult to keep them on the state payroll, and small companies are willing to take the risks of creating those applications on their own capital and then to prove the concept works."

Working with government agencies often means working with organizations that already have tight budgets and stretched resources.

Connected Living, a Massachusetts based business, works with senior citizen centers and helps healthcare providers stay connected with discharged patients, 40 percent of the company's revenue comes from servicing public housing. Connected Living offers residents not just Internet access but advanced computer lessons, job training, education and wellness programming.

The ROI seems evident, at least to people who work in public housing. After all, if impoverished people are able to access the Internet, at least in theory, the playing field with the rest of the social classes is leveled. Being able to get on the web means more accessibility to potential job postings and employers, being able to research more education options and having more resources at one's disposal. All of that said, there's a reason Connected Living isn't yet in public housing across all 50 states (17 states so far, although they're contracted to be throughout 30 by year's end).

"Nobody's sitting there with extra money," says Hoit. "You're asking someone to take money from somewhere else and reposition it."

Considering all the stakeholders is crucial for private companies that want to business with government. Just to get in the door, Sarah Hoit, CEO of Connected Living, says they have numerous conversations with public housing executive directors in cities and states as well as officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and assuming it works out, from there, her staff works with broadband and wireless network providers to install computer learning centers in each unit.

Before approaching government agencies with Smart911, Axbey took his time making sure his service was conceived as carefully as possible. His company conferred with NENA (National Emergency Number Association) and APCO (the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) to finesse ideas on incorporating their technology with 911's and to generate influence in the industry.

"We wanted to understand the infrastructure of how 911 worked first, instead of just presenting Smart911 to 911 officials and hoping they could figure out how to incorporate it into their own technology," Axbey says, adding that by learning more about the government agencies beforehand, rather than just rushing their concept, they were able to understand the venture capitalists who would fund technology such as theirs.

Smart911 has been on the market for two years, and a smattering of cities, including Atlanta, Nashville, Washington, D.C., and Louisville, as well as the state of Arkansas, are using the technology. Due to all of the red tape, a business partnering with individual government agencies across the country isn't likely to become an overnight success.

And there is a lot of red tape, says Dan Biederman, CEO of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a 14-year-old New York City firm that uses private management and private funding to manage public spaces, like parks. He cites a lot of challenges for the small business owner trying to integrate itself with a government agency, notably a maze of contracting regulations, public sectors unions and the whims of elected officials.

"The appointed people are afraid of the electives, so even if you solve the first two issues, there's a good chance the whole thing is going to come crashing down," Biederman says.

So idealism aside, why would any private company want to partner with the government?

"Well, it's a huge market," Biederman says. "If you get a tiny, tiny slice, you're still running a big company."

(The author is a Reuters contributor)

(Editing by John Peabody and Brian Tracey)