What is Government? Uber, Airbnb and the State.

In early December, a video from Toronto went viral. The footage, captured on a mobile phone, showed a taxi driver being dragged 20 metres down a street, after clinging to the side of an Uber vehicle and banging on the glass. This happened during a day of protests against Uber by Toronto Cab drivers. We watched the clip in horror, unfazed by the dispute and yet still shocked to see the violence.

The now infamous taxi driver (who was not entirely without sympathy) was angry with the part-time Uber driver for providing rides at a lower cost. The legality of service is passionately debated, but there is a visible consensus on the quality of experience and convenience of the app. Reviewing the emergence of taxi apps which offer some similar features to Uber, we might even suggest Uber provoked more than outrage, it invited innovation to an industry reluctant to change and even prone to corruption.

uberHop’s Pop-Up Stops

Just before Christmas, Uber launched uberHOP in Toronto; a service where passengers can have a shared ride across town for $5. The service was welcomed by headlines like “TTC’s lawyers to examine UberHop commuting service”, “Taxi/Uber wars are our future” and “New Uber apps could be more trouble for Toronto taxis”.

The TTC is also generating headlines this week by introducing fare increases. A single cash fare on the TTC network will now increase from $3 to $3.25, so for some Torontonians, the difference of $1.75 is a negligible cost, compared to the increased comfort and speed of an uberHOP ride.

Service Delivery is not the Service Cost

If private companies can suddenly emerge as direct competition to a public service, what does this say about the power of the public sector as a brand? That we would shift so readily from the familiar ritual of public transport, and jump in someone else’s vehicle, based on journey cost and duration, justified through the peculiar mix of social validation and artificial intelligence.

What does this say about the relevance of state-funded services when we would readily trade short-term convenience for service ethics, security and sustainability? If the state solution is the weaker alternative, is it appropriate to take offence at how consumers vote with their dollars?

Anyone who has to commute across a large city, anywhere in the world, has probably experienced an unpleasantly cramped subway carriage or streetcar/tram. Public transit systems do not generally respond well to fluctuations in traffic, which arguably makes them vulnerable to external innovation and creates opportunity for the private sector. This is particularly the case in Toronto, where the journey price is the same regardless of when you travel, or indeed how far within the TTC network. Compare this to London (UK) and indeed many other cities, where you pay a premium to travel at peak times of the day. It is a somewhat bizarre state of affairs when we object to an increase in taxes or transit pass price hikes and yet we gladly open our wallets for chauffeur services from A to B.

Since Government foots the bill for service infrastructure (Uber doesn’t pay for the roads or traffic control systems), is it fair that private companies can swoop in to benefit from state legacy investment? What does it mean for Government today, when private enterprise can so boldly benefit from public investment, especially when this advantage is not reciprocal. Is the role of Government still credible when private enterprise indirectly impacts critical revenue streams?

Defining Government

If “Government” in its dictionary definition is:

“the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.
: a particular system used for controlling a country, state, etc.
: the process or manner of controlling a country, state, etc.”

With the emphasis on controlling the public, what does it mean when a new dynamic emerges on the scene and, consciously or not, makes a power play? Uber set out to create value, profitably. Power is acquired through building value, profitably. Government is not culturally positioned to turn a profit, it sets a budget for development and its sole goal is to ensure the project doesn’t exceed cost estimates. Even when public projects exceed their projects, there are rarely immediate repercussions beyond angry media headlines.

Passive-Aggressive Disruption

How does an entity observe its competition when neither one is particularly interested in the other, operate under different ecosystems and evolve on markedly different agendas? It may be argued that Government, both in the US and beyond, has been relatively passive to respond to the ambition of Silicon Valley. True, there are multiple reviews into Uber and Airbnb as they scale, but going forward, investment should shift towards thoughtful prevention, rather than cure.

It’s a relatively new phenomenon for consumers to market a service from a product purchased for a completely different agenda. We have historically bought houses because we needed accommodation and when we buy a house, we also make this purchase as an investment and as an expression of identity. Who’d have thought we could ease the cost of investment by periodically sharing our house on mutual terms, that the benefits of staying in someone else’s home would be experiencing an alternative expression of identity, as well as a cheaper bed for the night. Cars, once a sacred space of personal solitude are now a source of additional revenue. Ten years ago it would have been difficult to imagine we would share this intimate space with a stranger.

“Sharing economy” as a behavioural definition arguably suits Government more than the collective of platforms supporting the commercialization of re-consumption. We pay taxes to the government and the government provides public services that we share collectively. Perhaps the main difference here is that when we pay sharing economy businesses for a service, we specifically fund the service in which we are interested. Taxes are much more ambiguous. The tax we pay, may or may not, fund the service(s) we desire.

The Inconsistency in Scrutiny and Mutiny

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a 19th century French politician, social theorist, journalist and philosopher remarked…

“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.
To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed and corrected.”

Surely this is as relevant to Uber knowing our daily commute, where we live, where we work and our contacts. Behold the power of design when convenience sweetens surveillance.

Time and Tide Wait For No Government

Uber isn’t the only poster-prodigy for the Sharing Economy. Airbnb is also winning acclaim for its share of disruption. In Vancouver, the company is being blamed for a surge in rental prices, with over 3,500 properties on the platform. As Airbnb rapidly morphs into a full-service travel portal, offering business accommodation, trip ideas, connecting locals to guests not simply for places to stay, but also recommendations on what to do in an area, the pace of feature development and platform extension is astounding, leaving traditional players wondering what happened. Whilst Government remains entrenched in its own labyrinth of decision-making, Silicon Valley visionaries are leveraging interest accrued on indecision by launching new features, with stock apologies lined up should anybody question the action. What’s incredible is a certain intuitive curiosity mapped over a thriving social data ecosystem, creating exponential opportunity. Civil servants may grumble at the audacity of such players and yet, real change from government, appears to be a little like herding cats.

Nailing the Right Questions is Critical to Growth

Take Airbnb’s “Mapping the World” initiative for example, an enquiry born out of big questions like:

“How do you understand a place without ever having been there?
How do you capture why your friend said you wouldn’t like Fisherman’s Wharf, but you should still go there to get a double double from In N Out?
How do you know where in the world will make for your perfect trip?”

Not discounting the genuine threat of state-surveillance to our human right of personal privacy, it is arguably more worrying to see the gigantic scale of wealth pulled into Silicon Valley companies. Once big data platforms like Facebook, Airbnb and Uber have traction, they build momentum that seems almost unstoppable. The speed of applied vision propels them into an alternative universe where innovation evolves at ten times the pace of public sector; as if one culture were moving at the speed of the sound and the other at the speed of light. If this seems to have unearthed a gap today, what will this look like a year, two years and five years down the line?

We Can’t Innovate by Jury

Most of the visible, accessible information on digital policy is, perhaps obviously, concerned with legal design, rather than interface design. This is a valid priority, the trouble is whilst we debate the legality of digital life in court, private enterprise flourishes and start-up technology dances around legal loopholes before Government has a chance to catch-up. What we need in the public sector is a platform and connected system that although cannot and should not try to preempt change, at least permits more agile analysis. The irony is that although digital privacy is important, people gravitate towards an accessible experience, aware that there could data issues, but still opting for the tangible benefit of immediate gratification.

In many ways, we should be as cognizant about our digital environment as we are about our physical one. Anyone who has tried searching for political vision on the Web and a digital strategy for Canada will know it is a painful experience. For instance, try visiting the Liberal party website, select “the platform” page and enter a few choice technology terms into the search bar:

  • The search term“Digital” generates one result for “Open Data”.
  • The search term “Internet” on the same page produces no results
  • “Web” produces so many results the search becomes irrelevant
  • “Online” generates four results: “Electoral Reform”, “Question Period”, “Online Services” and “Official Languages”
  • “Social media” triggers three results: “Affordable Housing”, “Fighting Poverty” and “Canada’s North”

It’s arguably not fair to critique a promotional channel of the governing party that now has much bigger priorities, but the Digital Canada website “Digital Canada 150 2.0” isn’t a lot of help either. This website states that there are five pillars of Canada 150:

Connecting Canadians
Protecting Canadians
Economic Opportunities
Digital Government
Canadian Content

Whilst these are important areas to explore, what’s arguably missing from this website and indeed surface government documentation, is a vision and ambition on designing the online citizen experience. Data protection and distribution is a critical tension and yet we can only secure broader engagement by investing in design first. We must design to short attention spans, not to long ones. There is little point in making data accessible if we can’t communicate the value and impact to a human and reduce the challenges they experience on a daily basis.

What the pillars cover is really the backlog of what the Canadian government should have achieved a decade ago. Aware that the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains has recently published his mandate letter, it still remains to be seen whether politicians can tackle the scale of necessary digital investment at the speed of industry, rather than the speed of Government.

Government Needs Rapid and Deep Disruption

When private companies break new ground ahead of state players, it becomes very difficult to fine them effectively, because there is no precedent. The act can be declared illegal at some point in the future, but by that point the company has already generated revenue, disrupted another industry and acquired valuable data around customer behaviour and engagement. When uberHOP goes head to head with the TTC, what does it that mean for state-supported services? Are TTC workers justified in their frustration, when there have been significant issues with current public transport services in Toronto. Government is typically a reactive, cautious entity and in which case, is it fated to become the underdog to innovative capitalism?

Two-way social reviews, now a core part of the sharing economy model, create value for both sides, matching trustworthy guests with trustworthy hosts. No longer do we have to settle for overpriced, indifferent, mediocre hotel service, with the paper-thin walls of a beige room. Tourism operators may not like the fact that Airbnb hosts don’t pay their way in traditional fee and membership charges, but they weren’t interested in affecting the status quo without them. The platform has traction, significant traction, because it meets a need. Perhaps it’s time to stop getting mad and start getting even.

The Game has Changed

The trouble with getting even is now the amount of effort involved. For a mindset moving at the speed of sound, catching up with a mindset moving at the speed of light is impossible through the traditional rules of play. To level up, the rules of the game must change again, and this can’t simply be about blocking emerging competition (e.g. banning Uber or Airbnb).

Without a strategy that pushes Government beyond its imagination and comfort zone, the public sector will never be a full participant in our digital future. In many ways we look to Government for guidance on so many aspects of our lives, digital life should be no exception. When Government should be leading the way in digital citizenship, we find that its focus on trends and headlines distracts from the real value it needs to deliver. Government needs a structure that allows it to anticipate the shift in the Technium. A partially-informed crowd inspires knee-jerk decisions that lead to short-term thinking. A longer-term vision that fully informs and engages the crowd might finally lead to the public and private sectors engaging at a similar speed.

What Happens Next?

It’s much easier to design a new system from scratch than it is to overhaul legacy infrastructure. Government begins at a disadvantage. We don’t just need a leaner public workforce, but one that truly reflects the changing nature of the world. We need people of all ages, ethics groups, gender/orientation, but physical characteristics aside, what we really need are humans with boundless energy, in an environment and culture that protects this energy. We want people who want to change the world, tempered by a practical mindset and intuition for political collaboration. If this sounds like simplified idealism, that’s because this is exactly what Government needs. At some point we have to get our hands dirty by wrestling with the necessary complexity of restructuring government for the future. It won’t be anything other than messy. And bloody. Whatever the carnage, facing adversity has to be smarter than wilful ignorance.

Action, Not Protest

The needs of current generations should not be at the expense of future ones. The culture, recruitment and benefits of government positions must be radically overhauled. Public servants will no longer be the form and function of bureaucracy (including “gaming the system”), but social entrepreneurs for driving change at scale. This should involve a thorough investigation of where we can automate work. It should also include an extensive exploration of where people can add the most value and how we can empower people so they are truly valuable. For example, in the UK, nurses must submit a body of work every few years to stay current, to demonstrate continued relevance of expertise. Perhaps this model could be extended to civil servants? Of course this pressure always brings the risk of overwork, but it might also lead to a culture of people who really, really, want to make change.

We should all be engaged participants in our future, not just Silicon Valley billionaires.

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