Finding Friends Where You Least Expect It
I’ve spent more than twenty years working in and around government and politics. And I’ve spent a lot of time now working with startups facing political and regulatory challenges. When people talk about the intersection of the government and technology, it’s usually to complain about how arrogant tech companies are in dealing with regulators or how stifling and backwards regulators are for failing to embrace new ideas.
It’s ironic, because both groups should spend a lot less time talking about each other and a lot more time talking to each other — not to have a better dialogue or process, but because they’re each potentially the other’s greatest asset.
Government today at every level faces crippling challenges that it has neither the ability nor tools to effectively address. At the same time, tech companies face uneven market cycles, investor and media expectations that are often hard to meet, and ever-increasing competition for narrow swaths of consumers or enterprise customers. Working together, the two sectors could solve a lot of each other’s problems.
Take droughts, for example. It’s hard to imagine cities or states doing much of anything other than addressing the symptoms and making changes and improvements at the margins. And while imposing restrictions on water usage can help in the short-term, the voters’ willingness to sacrifice usually doesn’t last that long, some enterprising candidate will realize this sooner or later and call to lift restrictions, and from there, it’s a swift race to the bottom.
There are some very smart startups with new and interesting ways to purify water and ways to make it a lot easier to manage water usage without consumers feeling real pain. But absent real cooperation from government (in the form of procurement, tax rebates, policies incentivizing use, and a willingness to reconsider regulations that prioritize marine species ahead of the need for potable water), their upside and ability of those startups to meet investor expectations may be limited.
So rather than the two co-existing, occasionally skirmishing, and occasionally cooperating, why shouldn’t the State of California or Arizona or Nevada convene the best water startups and say “Look, the drought problem is only going to get worse and it’s certainly not going to solve itself. What can you do to help it, what can you develop to meet our needs, how long will it take, how much will it cost and how can we do this together?” For states, the upside is clear — they’re given new ways to get to the core of the problem. And for those startups, they’re now looking into a sales channel that’s a lot more stable than just relying on consumers and a lot bigger than just featuring their products on the app store.
The same applies to cyber-terrorism (public sector employees with public sector salaries are not going to come up with the best defenses and solutions), income inequality (the sharing economy presents tremendous opportunities for workers and consumers and it’s equally obvious that more formal treatment and protection of those workers should occur in some form), education (the traditional public school model isn’t working in cities and suburbs all across the country), health insurance (having a handful of bloated mega-insurers is not an efficient use of health care resources) and so many other issues. But it’s going to take a lot less resentment, skepticism and fear from each side.
This all has to begin with smart, confident elected officials who have the authority and convening power to ask different startups how they would approach different problems and then empower them to do it. There aren’t a lot of Governors and Mayors willing to risk alienating donors in traditional industries, but there are some in both parties. And like everything in government, success breeds repetition, so we just need a few insightful leaders to get things started.
In other words, let’s try putting our guards down and our heads together.