Uber and Airbnb are cultivating better relationships with governments by… offering the government a direct benefit. Airbnb helps Portland and San Francisco with emergency preparedness by connecting them with hosts who might offer free lodging in case of disaster, and Uber helps Detroit get its jurors to the courthouse.
In an ideal world, governments would be responsive to the needs of their residents. But feedback loops aren’t efficient in government (elections are held every 2-6 years), and they take many various, unbalanced forms (e.g. public commenting, special interest lobbying, contributions, etc.). Entrenched and consolidated interests such as the taxi or hotel industry have provided government with feedback more quickly and effectively than residents.
On the other side, elected officials – surprisingly or unsurprisingly – won’t know the everyday benefits of Uber. Three months ago, I was with a young city councilman who faced an upcoming ride-sharing legislation vote. As he tried to leave the event, he had to have his staff order an Uber and explain to him how it worked (and that he didn’t need cash). It’s no surprise that legislators, who know how cabs work and have been regulated for decades, are skeptical of ride-sharing companies as they don’t typically use them.
But elected officials can be influenced in other ways – you can help make the case for new technologies by helping government do its current job better (or easier). Elected officials do understand – because they’ll hear the benefits from department heads – that Airbnb can help mitigate housing issues when disaster strikes, or Uber can help get more jurors to their courthouses on time so they don’t have to build a new parking lot. And this is a great way for a company to be introduced to a municipality – more tech-enabled companies should think of taking this tack as they enter new markets.
Municipalities aren’t too different from customers. There’s a clear adoption curve. It’s just that most elected officials are part of the late-majority or laggards when it comes to new technology unless there’s a clear champion that can influence them. And the operators in government can serve as that influencer.