In my youth and his, Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?” I doubt that he was talking about the surface transportation system but the question sure resonates for us today. There are some odd things happening and I don’t think we know what they fully mean quite yet.
Back in Dylan’s day, governments deployed technology they bought from the private sector. Today procurement cycles are so long that the private sector bypasses government altogether. Back in Dylan’s day you took a train or a bus or drove and it never occurred to you that those services should be linked. Today customers are demanding that all services be accessed via smartphone. Are these related? You betcha.
Let’s look at technology acquisition. Public procurement cycles are many years long. Suppliers know that they need to be involved with the government customer long before the RFP (request for proposal) is even issued to offer input on scope and specs. When it is, it can be at least a year to a decision and deployment can take years more, with all of the deployment steps reviewed and approved by the government, thus slowing the provider down further still.
Add to the mix the rapid development cycle for apps and what is a tech company with a hot new idea to do? Deploy without the government is the response. That is indeed what we have seen: transportation network companies, ride share, trip planning, traveler information and even in-car safety applications. Transportation has been bifurcated into public and private services, but there is one element that can’t be fully privatized, and that is payment. Every day it gets harder to use the US payment system for obvious security reasons and so publicly provided transportation services need a private partner for their payment systems.
Putting additional pressure on the divide between privately delivered and publicly delivered services is the customer. Today’s customer has grown up with smartphones and expects to manage his/her life on that device. One of my daughter’s friends, in her twenties, told me that she would not consider a bank unless she could deposit checks with her phone. The providers of transportation, both public and private need to be responsive to that demand. If it doesn’t have an app, forget about it.
So how do these two ideas come together? Government procurement cycles are too slow for today’s technology but governments need privately provided payment systems. The solution lies in a new relationship between government and their technology providers. If the public is to benefit from state-of-the-art technology then the agencies will need to step back from being in charge of the technology and instead be in charge of the level of performance being delivered. If they can let technology companies do what they do best and instead of a focus on the specifications of the system, concentrate on the requirements of the customer experience, they can get the best of both worlds: satisfied customers as well as rapid uptake on technology.