The grief that people give the term “lobbyist” is justly deserved. Too often companies use lobbyists and other political action committees to threaten politicians and undermine democracy. They try to win influence by using the power of their cash rather than the power of their ideas.
But “lobbying” doesn’t have to be this way. In recent months, I’ve gotten to know the incredibly bright people in Google’s Washington DC office. Though Google certainly engages in some traditional lobbying activities, what makes their public policy team impressive is that they are re-imagining what it means for a technology company to influence government.
Google’s Policy Innovations
Rather than just hosting swanky dinners and donating strategically to select politicians, Google actively engages in collaborative projects that help the government function better. These pro-bono activities draw upon Google’s talents. For example, here are a few creative projects that Google has done to assist the government:
- Polling Station Finder. Unfortunately, the databases that contain information about where citizens should go to vote are extremely fragmented. So Google helped unify these databases into a single tool that makes it easy for anybody in the country to find their appropriate polling station.
- Agency Website Search. If you’ve ever visited a federal website, you know that their search functionality is often a disaster. Google is working with agencies to make their websites more easily searchable. Furthermore, by (anonymously) sharing government-related search trends from Google’s own website, Google is helping agencies redesign their sites to better match what people are actually looking for.
- Public Health Monitoring. Google claims that it can predict flu outbreaks more quickly than the government. The idea is that people often search for “flu symptoms” on Google several days before going to a doctor. Therefore, Google can know of flu outbreaks days, if not weeks, prior to the CDC’s hospital-based monitoring systems. By sharing these flu trends publicly, Google helps the CDC better mobilize a public health response.
Projects like these are a win-win-win for citizens, the government, and for Google. Citizens get a better functioning government. The government gets more efficient and more knowledgeable about technology. And Google builds ties with key people in the government. The next time there is some contentious policy issue to settle, you can be sure that Google will have friends in government who will look out for them.
Lessons for Other Tech Heavyweights
Right now, Google seems to be the sole pioneer in employing this “Lobbying 2.0″ approach. Most other technology companies (such as HP) just hire old-school lobbyists to influence the government, or old-school salespeople to sell their wares to the government. I want to see this change. Every technology company out there could learn from Google’s example.
Facebook: why aren’t you working with every single member of Congress to create better Fan pages? How awesome would it be if every member of Congress posted all their floor speeches, committee questions, and voting records to their Facebook feed. It would be a 21st century replacement for CSPAN. It would truly be a killer app for representative democracy.
Or Microsoft: why weren’t you the one to create something as groundbreaking as Sunlight Labs? You still make some of the best tools out there for software development, so why not give some of them away to developers who are helping to make government more transparent? It would help open up the government, and expose people to your innovative platforms.
So if you are a technology company, I have some simple advice. First, fire half your lobbyists. Then put those funds towards Lobbying 2.0 projects. Not only will it help your bottom line, but it will reinvigorate our democracy.