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The Big Social Sector Opportunity

Looking across the digital landscape, no vertical represents a larger opportunity for innovation and improvement than the civic and social sector verticals. While people around the world use their computers and mobile devices to hail a taxi, deposit money at their banks, book travel and restaurant reservations and much, much more, our experiences with civic and social sector institutions remain firmly grounded in the 20th century. 

The internet relies on interactions and interconnectivity to create value for users.  If we look at the history of online travel, for example, we see a huge moment of trust and interconnectivity in 1976, when United Airlines allowed third party travel agents direct access to their automated booking system. That moment was the first that enabled the massive online ecosystem and options we have today for users.

But, governments and social sector partners still frequently insist on their own proprietary control of the end-to-end user experience (rather than focusing on their core competencies of actually delivering these services).

At this point, the first question we have to ask is why?

Why has government, which was a trailblazer in implementing the internet protocol, failed to fully capture its potential?

  • Universal Access Requirements: Unlike the private sector, government has a responsibility to ensure fair and relatively equal access to it’s services. The current thinking on this has often devolved to lowest common denominator channels such as in-person and phone with only token investment in digital services. Ironically, the best investment (as anyone who has had an IRL interaction with a bank teller can attest to) service providers can make to improve their in-person experience IS the development of robust, self-service tools on the internet. Every customer who chooses to serve themselves online is one less person in line, which is great for the people who still want or need live, in-person assistance.
  • Risk Tolerance: Another is risk tolerance (or lack thereof). For governments at all levels, there’s often a laser focus on what’s gone wrong, and what might go wrong. The public, the media and political opponents hold government institutions to an almost impossibly high standard of perceived perfection, creating a minefield for innovators to cross from idea to impact.

On the last point, it is ironic that aversion to risk of failure or cost-overruns can create self-fulfilling prophecies as compelling features are removed over fear of fraud, waste, misuse or even just general perception and low cost options are replaced with high cost (but less risky) ones. Even innocuous tasks like linking from one government website to another require a legal disclaimer.

The net result of this risk aversion is a bias towards control: control of the public information and where it is published, control of a user’s experience when interacting with government, and control over who, ultimately can access vital information and services. For governments, it often seems like the interconnectivity of the internet is a risk (or a burden) to be managed, rather than an opportunity for innovation, cost reduction and user experience improvement.

But, is there hope?

Absolutely! What can the public and government do to catch up? A great deal!

One major opportunity lies in re-thinking the information infrastructure for government services on the internet. The fragmentation isn’t inherently a problem, but it certainly doesn’t help. The main challenge is this content is often designed (albeit, at times, unsuccessfully) for consumption by humans, instead of humans and machines. If the State of Texas creates a PDF sample of their driver’s license application, a person can read it and (hopefully) understand the requirements and information they’d need to provide to successfully get a license. But it might as well be gibberish to a computer.

If we as a society want to create the accessibility and ease of use of IMDB or Yahoo Finance for information about government and social services, then providers must start publishing that information in a common, machine readable format. There is a tremendous amount of valuable content locked up in free text or even (gasp!) PDFs across an incredibly fragmented range of government websites. The investment is small, and the gains are potentially huge.

The best experiences on the internet allow developers and users to combine content and choose their own path to access, and the burden of creating those experiences needn’t fall on the public sector. When we consider the complexity of the jurisdictions and agencies that provide these services (if you lose your job, how do you navigate the myriad of federal, state and local programs that can help you?), the internet can serve as a critical “human centered teleporter” – auto-magically directing the public to the hard to find crevices and hiding places of critical services.

Another big opportunity is bringing the frictionless world of technology (especially mobile technology) that many of us enjoy to the critical social services our society provides. As smart phones become a more universally accessible part of our daily lives, how can we ensure that they are universally useful across income strata? What can we learn from the success of products like Square and Paypal in the context of EBT payments? How can the transparency of help low-income individuals better understand the web of benefits and services they receive (or could receive)? How can the on-demand economy of Uber, Postmates and Google Shopping Express enable more efficient and accessible usage of programs like Meals-on-Wheels or paratransit? A major obstacle to these types of transformations is trust (like the aforementioned trust airlines placed in travel agents in the 70’s), but that’s starting to change: Companies like Intuit (Turbotax), Public Stuff and Socrata are innovating on top of government platforms for filing your taxes, 3-1-1 reporting and access to open data, and we are seeing more and more great solutions every day.

Technology and the internet represent an incredible opportunity to empower the public and enable tremendous improvements to the efficiency and efficacy of the civic and social sector. With targeted investment in smart use of data and an increased trust of users, developers and the public, we as a society can fulfil the potential of these innovations to improve the lives of everyone.


Thank you Scott – what incredible insights into the value open data can bring to the development of private organisations, start ups, and organisations with a social focus. Very timely too, given the passing of the recent DATA Act as well. Be sure to follow Scott and tweet him any questions you may have. As ever, be sure to include Markets For Good and enjoy our updates.