Subscriber IDs & Government: The Vending Machine & The Platform

By David Gee March 7, 2016

“Information technology (IT) advancements have been at the center of a transformation in how the private sector operates—and revolutionized the efficiency, convenience, and effectiveness with which it serves its customers. The Federal Government largely has missed out on that transformation due to poor management of technology investments, with IT projects too often costing hundreds of millions of dollars more than they should, taking years longer than necessary to deploy, and delivering technologies that are obsolete by the time they are completed. “

That’s a concisely worded but nevertheless pretty obvious statement. What may be more surprising is it’s source — the official White House web site (it’s commendable that they’ve kept the quote up even after the Obamacare website unpleasantness).

Here in the United States, it’s easy to grumble about government inefficiency when it comes to basic services: paying taxes, registering a business, getting a driver’s license, paying a toll. Everyone understands the pain points (including, apparently, the White House).

In other places, however, all these points seems to be associated with considerably less pain. Consider:

  • Estonians don’t just pay their taxes online, they simply authorize an online tax statement that’s been fed real-time financial data over the course of the previous year.
  • Through the “Irembo” portal, Rwandans apply and pay for driver’s licenses over their phones.
  • Through the “SingPass” program, Singaporeans access hundreds of e-services offered by more than 60 government agencies.

All of these initiatives share a single feature, and it’s the same reason why Google, Apple and Facebook are some the most successful brands in the world (here’s a hint – you probably have a single, secure ID with at least two, if not all three, of these companies).

Thanks to Subscriber IDs, Google and Apple, along with Estonia and Singapore, aren’t just companies that sell you stuff, or governments that provide you with basic services. They are platforms that give you access to a range of new opportunities to learn and engage.

The United Nations makes the same distinction in its latest e-government survey:

“Citizens tend to think of government as a kind of vending machine. They put in taxes and get out services that governments provide. However, this vending machine idea is giving way to the idea of ‘government as a platform.’ The platform metaphor means that government provides a system in place to deliver services not by governments alone, but also by citizens and others (which also allows people inside and outside to innovate).”

So what happens when governments move beyond the vending machine world of potholes and library fees, and into the platform world of civic creativity?

  • In Sweden, a program called SMSLifesaver allows medically trained citizen volunteers to be instantly alerted if there is a heart attack victim within 500 meters of their location.
  • In Trinidad & Tobago, a mobile government portal allows fishermen to swap real-time advice, access wholesale market prices and sea safety information, and send out emergency alerts.
  • In New Zealand, gamification in energy reports lets people know how they match up with neighbours, and if they are close to any new milestones.

The other mandatory element of all of these programs, of course, is security. Citizens have every right to protect sensitive details with digital signature-certificate systems. This country is particularly sensitive to this issue, but the choice between big brother and having my information scattered across dozens of hopelessly siloed government databases is a false one.

Right now, virtually every single one of my interactions with my state and federal government is miserable: going to the DMV, paying my taxes, attempting to decipher my PG&E bill, dealing with CalTrans and road tolls. These are mindless obstacles, not simple, intuitive touch points that should either give me relevant information or disappear altogether.

It’s time for a change. It’s not just consumers that are demanding more transparency and automation. It’s citizens as well. I want the platform, but right now I’ll settle for a vending machine that works.

Please join me at our annual Subscribed Conference this April 12-13 in San Francisco!