The other week I gave a talk on Gen Y, Gen X, Technology and the Future of the Public Service at StatCan’s managers’ meeting. The speaker before me apparently told the gathering that they “should be more like Google” if they want to recruit young talent. During his Q&A one of the managers asked how a government agency could be like Google (a legitimate question, I thought) and the speaker didn’t have much to say. Frustrating, no?
But I think there is a good case. While the idea of StatCan emulating one of the best performing, young, hottest companies in Silicon Valley may sound far-fetched, it needn’t. StatCan can be like Google. In fact, it already is.
Look, for a second, a Google’s strategy. Google’s mission is encapsulated in its SEC filing statement:
“to organize the world’s information …. and make it universally accessible and useful”. Google explains that it believes that the most effective, and ultimately the most profitable, way to accomplish our mission is to put the needs of our users first. Offering a high-quality user experience has led to strong word-of-mouth promotion and strong traffic growth. Putting users first is reflected in three key commitments illustrated in the Google SEC filing: “1. We will do our best to provide the most relevant and useful search results possible, independent of financial incentives. Our search results will be objective and we will not accept payment for inclusion or ranking in them.
- We will do our best to provide the most relevant and useful advertising. Advertisements should not be an annoying interruption. If any element on a search result page is influenced by payment to us, we will make it clear to our users.
- We will never stop working to improve our user experience, our search technology and other important areas of information organization”.
To organize the world’s information… and make it universally accessible. This a huge part of StatCan’s mission. To organize Canada’s information… (now if only we made it universally accessible).
I think Google’s mission is similar to StatCan’s. Indeed the main difference is that StatCan not only organizes Canada’s information; it also creates that data. However, this is a space that Google has moved aggressively into — why do you think it has created platforms like Google Earth? To facilitate the creation of data so that it has more to organize and offer its users. Indeed, what is interesting about Google is that it knows the more information and data that is out there – for free – the more useful and important it becomes. It means more people doing searches, which means more advertising revenue.
So what does this mean for StatCan?:
First, distinguish and separate what you do: “Creating and organizing information about Canada” from what makes you valuable: making this information universally available to citizens.
Second, make yourself the centre of a data gathering, sharing and analyzing eco-system: There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people out there who could do amazing things with StatCan’s data. The problem is, it isn’t easy to find, often you have to pay for it, and it is usually only available in HTML charts that aren’t easily accessed, and certainly not dynamically available. If StatCan data was available as API’s and Excel spreadsheets, then a whole ecosystem of multimillion dollar businesses, bloggers and other pro-ams would emerge around it as supporters, collaborators and complementors.
Finally, hire young people to make it happen because if you are open, they will come: Does StatCan want young people to come work for them? Then stop behaving like a 20th-century consulting firm whose job is to hoard data and conduct analyses for clients. (Don’t worry you can still do this). Instead, act like the 21st-century Google-like platform that you are. Your job should be to make your data as searchable, taggable, as pluggable, in short, as usable, as possible. This, in addition to collection, should be the top priority. If StatCan’s data were easily available (say as an API) people would start using it in all sorts of creative ways – this, and this alone will drive innovation, excitement, energy and buzz about Statcan into the workplace. In short, it will make Statcan relevant. StatCan should be a place where young Canadians want to work so they can learn how to handle and disseminate HUGE quantities of data to everyone from the smallest bloggers to the largest companies. That skill set is going to be critical in the 21st century and so such a mission will attract talent top talent, if StatCan gives them the freedom to play and build it.
StatCan is like Google — if it chooses to be. It can’t offer the stock options, but it can offer a cool opportunity to help build the country’s most critical data ecosystem for a 21st century economy. That’s a job lots of geeks would be interested in.