And a Teen Shall Lead Them

How 15-year-old Ben Casnocha brought e-government to Cupertino, Menlo Park, Burbank, and other cities across California

Anywhere in California.

For free.

During the previous summer, Casnocha had compiled what he cheekily called the Book of Authorities, a compendium of contact information for public officials throughout the state. When he received an e-mail from a resident, he dutifully looked up the appropriate agency and made sure the message got through; if he encountered an unresponsive government official -- or one who didn't want to discuss his city's problems with a middle-school student -- Casnocha handed the phone to his father and listened silently on another line. Cities that didn't at least listen to their residents' complaints could earn a negative notice on the site.

Dave Richmond, 39, was hired last year as 
Comcate's chief operating officer, the first position in 
the company filled by a non-family member.
Paolo Vescia
Dave Richmond, 39, was hired last year as Comcate's chief operating officer, the first position in the company filled by a non-family member.
Casnocha plans to attend college, but isn't sure how 
that will change Comcate.
Paolo Vescia
Casnocha plans to attend college, but isn't sure how that will change Comcate.

After a few months, word of the site -- and Casnocha's admirable efficiency -- began to spread to other Web sites and listservs, and a few local television stations and newspapers carried items about the service. Soon, Casnocha's inbox was being jammed with more than 100 e-mails a day, including missives from the occasional "psycho from Rhode Island," as Ben puts it, who demanded he expand his scope beyond California. But that was impossible: His family members were pitching in to help him handle the heavy flow, but the volume of e-mail quickly outpaced their ability to lead a normal life.

"The more well known we became, the higher the expectations were," says David Casnocha, Ben's father and a municipal bond lawyer at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. "We walked away from it because it was just too time-consuming."

But Ben was determined to take another stab at improving the connection between citizens and government. He devoured book after book about financing, corporations, and technology and persuaded his father -- an attorney who assists local governments in securing bonds to build schools and hospitals -- to introduce him to some city managers around the Bay Area. The teenager grilled them on what they desired from an e-government program and asked how he could better help taxpayers relay their complaints and suggestions via the Internet.

"Governments are 10 years behind the private sector when it comes to using the Internet -- they still use Post-it Notes and yellow pads to track things," Casnocha says. "There's a big market to bring efficiency to government."

To find out how big, Casnocha held a series of focus groups for the next eight months. Encouraged and aided by his father, he met with lawyers, consultants, city managers, and venture capitalists. He pitched them on what he thought was an unexplored market: an e-government system aimed at midsize cities, where local government plays a vital role in ensuring basic services but is often woefully underserved by technology companies. "Bigger cities have IT departments that can build something internally, and small cities don't have enough citizen demand to warrant a system," Casnocha explains. "No one was looking at midsize cities."

E-government can be loosely defined as the performance and delivery of government services through electronic means. More than just posting paper forms online, e-government can encompass everything from online permitting to bill- and fee-paying capabilities to citizen complaint interfaces. After talking with city managers, Casnocha was convinced that midsize cities had specific, idiosyncratic needs that could only be served by individually tailored systems. He designed a model that would allow citizens to submit complaints, compliments, suggestions, and questions, but would also enable officials to process and organize the information in internal databases.

"The first focus group was with the city manager of Antioch," Casnocha recalls. "The reaction was very open and helpful, but when you're actually trying to sell them something, it got more serious. They ask, 'Who's going to answer the phone 9 to 5 when we have a question?'"

It was a fair point: Could Ben Casnocha, full-time high school student, run his own company?

"For a while, my parents were concerned. Am I going to be able to maintain social connections? Yes. Am I going to be able to continue with basketball? Yes. Am I going to keep up with my schoolwork?" He flinches, as if he cannot tell a lie. "Well, yes, I am, but 'Yes, I am' means 'I'll continue to try.' As for the actual quality ...."

David Casnocha's office, on the 42nd floor of the same downtown skyscraper that hosts Comcate's tiny space, commands a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay, with the Transamerica Building rising in the foreground and Alcatraz lurking beyond. The stacks of boxes and reams of paper cluttering Casnocha's spacious corner office testify to his three decades of work with municipalities. In contrast, it's a single, tidy black binder that bears witness to his son's fledgling entrepreneurial career.

"I'm collecting all this stuff, mostly for myself," David Casnocha says, opening the binder to the first photocopy, a crudely composed news release in large type. "Ben used to write his own press releases. He'd write it, send it to all the newspapers." Casnocha turns the page and smiles wider. "These are fliers for Comcate. We used to go around to towns and hang these up in the library or City Hall. We didn't ask first, we just did it." The binder gives way to more sophisticated documents in the Comcate archive -- Ben's PowerPoint presentations and the glossy brochures the company distributes today -- but it's clear David Casnocha has a special affinity for the lines on Ben's five-page résumé that mark his son's earliest foray into the job market: Ben Casnocha & Associates, Computer Handyman.

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