Google 101 for Better Public Services

If governments figure out just 10% of Google's secret, we could see real improvements to government service experiences.

By Xische Editorial, October 24, 2018

Source: Hurca/ Shutterstock

Source: Hurca/Shutterstock

You don’t need a background in branding to understand how nervous Google executives were about their latest product launch this month. Just days before the technology juggernaut was set to unveil its flagship Pixel 3 smartphone on October 9, the Wall Street Journal published a story detailing how a massive security bug had affected hundreds of thousands of users on Google’s social media platform Google+. Compounding the news, the company kept the vulnerability hidden from the public for months “because the flaw didn't meet the company's internal thresholds for informing the public.”

In today’s climate of data hacks and growing mistrust over how technology companies collect and use personal information, the Google+ bug should have put a major dent in Google’s image and share price. Just months before the news broke, Google refused to send any representatives to a special US Senate inquiry into data vulnerability. At the hearing, senators grilled technology companies like Facebook about the mishandling of data and lack of security on their platforms. With their not-yet-public knowledge of the Google+ security bug, it’s no wonder Google didn’t want to send representatives who would run the risk of exposing the vulnerability or perjuring the company before Congress.

The public fallout from this data breach, however, was minimal compared with similar breaches at Facebook and other leading tech companies. Google shut down Google+, but that was a long time coming, as it was one of the worst-performing products in the company’s portfolio. The Pixel 3 was launched to positive reviews. And there was no major public backlash in the form of a “delete Gmail” campaign or calls to regulate Google’s enormous power. In this period of heightened awareness over data privacy, how did the world’s largest advertising company avoid scrutiny after a major security breach that it kept secret from the public eye?

The answer is remarkable in its simplicity: Google offers services that are simply too good for the majority of people to live without. From Gmail to Drive and the Chrome browser, Google’s tools have radically transformed how we go about our everyday lives. Because its products work so well, Google has seamlessly integrated into all aspects of our online behaviour to the point where we are all tied to its systems in one way or another. Few other companies in the history of humanity have reached such ubiquity across societies and geographies.

Google understands its own power. Instead of cowering behind the news of a security cover-up, company executives took to the stage at their Pixel 3 launch event to underscore how pervasive the company is in everyone’s life. With meticulous detail, they highlighted how Google's use of data has made its services indispensable for users.

For governments and other service providers who are struggling to achieve just a fraction of Google’s ‘stickiness’ with their customers, there is much to be learned from Google’s business model and its reaction to the Google+ bug. First and foremost, the product is king. If you offer an excellent service or product that customers embrace wholeheartedly, you retain a lot of the leverage if things go sour. In pursuit of their business objectives, Google has convinced millions around the world to hand over personal data to use their free services. The more data Google obtains, the better its services function and the more money it makes.

Governments can and should borrow a page from Google’s playbook when it comes to offering products and services that put residents’ and citizens’ needs first. Services, from municipal functions to public parking, must be streamlined, intuitive, and easy to use. In our fast-paced environment, users don’t want to encounter any barriers and are turning to predictive services to complete daily tasks. Governments have struggled to convince users to hand over the same amount of data that they willingly give to a company like Google because individuals do not see the same return on their investment. This in turn hampers Governments’ ability to deliver better services and perpetuates a negative feedback cycle.

If governments figure out just 10% of Google's secret then we might actually see some quality improvements to the government services experience. We are under no illusions about how difficult it would be for governments to behave like Google. For one, Google is one of the world’s most valuable companies and its services earn the company money. Governments don’t have the same revenue model. But that hasn’t stopped countries likeEstonia from embracing a Google-like approach to social services. When it comes to voting or paying taxes, Estonian citizens can interact with their government through the internet from virtually anywhere in the world. By emulating Google and, to a lesser extent, Estonia, other similarly nimble city governments in places like Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore could kick-start a government services revolution. These small states have the right combination of agile governments and small populations that allow for rapid yet wide-scale experimentation to convince and delight residents. The future of this model is in their hands.