To say that technology is changing the world beyond recognition still sounds like an understatement. Our quest for invention has given us gunpowder and digital photography, and it has filled our oceans with plastic. In the 21st century, we find ourselves worrying about our digital identities as much, if not more, than our analogue ones.
In this age of disruption, humanity has a choice. Gunpowder can be used to make weapons, but it can also create fireworks. Digital photography can generate massive e-waste, but it can also cure blindness. Ultimately, it’s pioneering innovation that will clean up our oceans. We must push technology to be a force for the common good.
This is an existential challenge with no single or simple solution. But it is clear that neither business nor government can tackle it alone. Here, I will begin by taking stock of how the relationship between technology and the public sector is framed. Secondly, I will review the mandate of the corporate functions at the vanguard of this debate, such as public policy and government affairs teams.
A fundamental rethink of corporations’ external affairs teams is needed. The head of government relations in a company is typically referred to as chief in-house lobbyist. Therein lies the problem. To lobby, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is "to try to persuade an elected official to take a particular action or change a law". This implies an inherent misalignment of interest between the company and the government.
What if we started with the premise that tech platforms and governments could find common objectives? In that case, companies wouldn’t need a lobbyist, but a Chief Partnership Officer. Consider cloud-computing giant Salesforce. It recognizes that "government CRM solutions are revolutionizing the capabilities of the public sector, just as they have the private sector", and it has set up a public sector collaboration group. Alibaba, Asia’s leading e-commerce platform, is partnering with the Thai government for its 4.0 Modernization Effort.
Solving problems is how businesses succeed. Profitability is ultimately a by-product of a company’s vision. To continue thriving, a global corporation has to find a bigger problem to solve, rather than protect a business model that has delivered in the past. Many corporate functions are already guided by this macro objective, so why not government affairs departments?
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Secondly, it is time to broaden the definition of a customer. Successful companies pride themselves on being customer-centric. In Silicon Valley, everyone is talking about user-experience design. Apple - the most valuable public company that ever existed - has one key objective, which is to delight its customers.
In this universe, non-customer stakeholders are a nuisance at best and an obstacle at worst. Whether the CEO subscribes to this view is beside the point. The "customer is king", and the government (often an industry regulator) stands in the way of a corporation’s ability to serve her.
But what if public institutions, whether at national, state, city or municipal level, were deliberately and unequivocally considered as a potential customer? What if typical board agendas included a recurring request to consider how a company’s core technology and the platform itself could be used in the public interest?
This is not to say that business must cozy up to regulators, or that government agencies, trusted with powers of oversight, should accept services from the companies they are expected to regulate. The public interest is represented by many institutions at many levels, and when businesses extend the same courtesy and consideration to them that they do to other prospective customers, win-wins for the common good become possible.
Products for the public
Lastly, government affairs teams should have a product management mandate. Product management truly is the secret sauce of the modern tech world. It is the glue that brings sales teams and engineers together to develop and deliver truly customer-focused solutions. When it comes to fixing government affairs, tech companies should build from their strengths and further leverage the unique expertise that has fuelled their success to date.
New products are pitched to executive boards all the time, and cross-functional product teams are assembled day in, day out. Why aren’t government affairs departments expected to contribute in the same way? What if this corporate function was no longer a "cost-centre" viewed through the prism of risk management?
Ultimately, it is a question of mandate and expectations from senior management. Incentivizing public policy and government relations teams to chip in product ideas and to change their staffing plan (to include product managers) is one way CEOs could start operationalizing a "rethink" of this function.
Of course, product pitches often compete on revenue model or market growth potential. A different matrix must apply for products designed to serve in the public interest. Genuine engagement with stakeholders could pay off in many ways, not least in reputational benefits, earned media value and consumer loyalty. Goldman Sachs once estimated the value of "goodwill and other intangibles on the books of companies in the S&P 500" to be $2.6 trillion, or 10% of their total assets.
In 2018, Airbnb launched Dataville, an initiative to share aggregated data with policy-makers in France. Lyft has improved its product offering in the public interest by going carbon neutral in a bid to fight climate change. Uber has created Uber Movement, a free tool that contextualizes driving patterns, based on the geolocation of its riders and drivers, to allow local authorities to address congestion better. Expedia has gone a step further and developed a new commercial product for cities and regions. It has truly embraced the idea of a new customer segment - destinations marketing organizations - and applied a product management approach to service it.
"New technologies and approaches are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that will fundamentally transform humankind", said the founder of the World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab. "The extent to which that transformation is positive will depend on how we navigate the risks and opportunities that arise along the way."
Tech enterprises are well placed to innovate in the public interest. Technology itself is value-neutral. It is the responsibility of companies to deploy it in ways that will maintain and protect our digital commons for the benefit of the many, not the few. Let us not allow the lack of imagination to stand in the way of progress.