Can We Monetizing Government Services?

On November 7, I attended a session put on by the Canadian Institute called “Government Connects“. All levels of government spoke about digital transformation of their services.  One of the speakers was the boss of all Alberta Public Servants, Marcia Nelson.  Marcia did a great job discussing what the Government of Alberta is doing in moving its services online.  Certainly Digital Government is the nirvana for most governments as they see cyberspace as being a cheaper, faster and more effective way to deliver more services to citizens.

The User as the Product

Marcia, and many of the speakers, talked about the expectations of citizens relative to their other digital experiences.  For example the ease to create a Facebook account, the functionality available via a GMail account or how a LinkedIn profile is now almost as important as a resume or a business card.  The question from Marcia, and others was ‘how can governments compete with these products?‘.

The other side of these services is a profit motive.  Facebook makes it easy to set up a profile so it can target you with advertisements. Gmail wants you as an email client so it can scan your email and target its advertisement.  LinkedIn wants you to buy a premium membership or at least get your eyeballs on its advertisements.  All of the above are examples of monetizing you as a user into becoming their product.  Assuming informed consent, there is nothing wrong with monetization.  It is an economic transaction in which a slice of your privacy is exchanged for some really good services (like watching cat videos on Facebook just saying).

The Digital Government Disadvantage

So where does government fit into this?  Firstly there is the challenge of resources.  A quick scan of the September 2016 quarterly results of Facebook shows they have about $10.6USD Billion in physical and intangible assets*.  Included in this number is $5.1USD Billion of network and computer software assets (physical) in addition to $1.7USD Billion in technologies and patents (intangible).  In other words, Facebook has excellent technical infrastructure to offer a premium product for free to users.  And if they don’t have a good product now, their $30.3USD Billion in current assets (e.g. cash, securities, etc.) can be used to buy that good product.

* Note, for those accounting weenies out there, an interesting item they have on their balance sheet is ‘Acquired users’.  I could not readily find a definition for this term but it appears that the users are really the Product!

Pity someone like the Government of Alberta (GoA).  A $50 billion a year organization in which an estimated 2.5%, over $1 billion, is spent annually on Information Management and Technology (IMT) (adapted from: GoA IMT Plan, 2016 – 2021, p. 4). From the GoA’s most recent financial statements, they have $4.4CAD Billion (about $3USD Billion) of computer assets – hey not bad – of which 78% of is fully depreciated (e.g. over 5 years old) – YIKES! (adapted from GoA 2015-16 Financial Statements, p. 63).

Beyond relying on old technology, the GoA has to do a lot more than Facebook.  While Facebook can focus on social media, the GoA needs to run registry systems (e.g. vital statistics, land titles or drivers licenses), health systems (e.g. immunization, medical records), education (K-12, student finance, apprenticeship certificates), business (collect taxes/royalties/fines) and human social functions (tracking children in foster care, seniors or homelessness).

The above is not a new story but it is worth repeating every now and then that governments do things that no one else wants to with a tiny fraction of the resources of private industry.  Governments must also build and run systems that have almost no tolerance for failure.

Risk and Skin in the Game

To the last point, risk, this is where government is at a further disadvantage.  The original investors in FaceBook backed a winner.  Those who put money in to Myspace, Friendster or DIGG did not fare so well (huh, never heard of some of these, check out the grave yard of failed social media infographic from the Search Engine Journal January 25, 2013).  Nicholas Taleb calls investors (win or lose) people with ‘Skin in the Game‘ from his book Anti-Fragile.  In contrast, public servants never have skin in the game.  We are always spending other people’s money and our fantastically worst case for abject failure is forced retirement or perhaps being fired – maybe.

In other words, governments have both an advantage and disadvantage around risk. The individuals involved do not have personal risk (advantage) but the organizations also lack the mind focusing benefit of the ‘terror of failure’ (disadvantage).

The Monetization Continuum and How Can Governments ‘Compete’

The reality is that Governments can’t and shouldn’t compete with the Facebook’s of the world.  Creating a bleeding edge user experience would be an inexcusable use of public funds and without the terror of failure would not likely be successful anyway.

But because thought exercises can lead to innovation, I am proposing the ‘Monetization Continuum‘ for governments; a government simply needs to pick a point on a line.  At one end (generally status quo) is ‘Mind and Accept the Gap‘ at the other is ‘Full Monetization‘ with other options falling between these two.  Definitions are provided below as well as way points but generally if you are Singapore you may be more comfortable having McDonald’s ads on your obesity website.  If you are at the other extreme – well this is where Minding the Gap comes in.

Monetization Continuum

End Points Definition Examples
Mind and Accept the Gap Governments acknowledge that they will lag and explain why to their citizens. Periodically, governments leap-frog into a stronger position. Status Quo
Monetize Fund digital government through ad, premium memberships or sponsorship revenue.

Premium services could even be tax-deductible!

Faster border crossing via Nexus.

On the Subject of Not Likely

The reality is that governments will and should never monetize their services.  There is a slippery slope of what is reasonable and in good taste.  Governments have something that Facebook or Google does not have – the coercive powers of taxation and legislation. Perhaps governments does not need to build systems when they can force organizations operating in its jurisdictions to offer the services.  There is a long tradition of this in the telecommunications world, for example.  This would not be monetizing users as products, this would monetizing providers as servants for the public good.  Just a thought.