7 Things Government Can Learn from Google’s Business Model

Google does many things well, but how can the company's approach be used in the public sector?

by / October 15, 2015

Google has quickly become one of the most recognized companies in the world. Incorporated in 1998, it now employs more than 50,000 people and has a market value that exceeds $350 billion. That is some amazing growth considering it has not even reached its 20th birthday.

What I find even more amazing is that Google remains on the forefront of so many amazing innovations. It still feels like a small company in many aspects and that has allowed it to navigate an ultra-competitive landscape without getting bogged down by bureaucracy, politics or the status quo.

Sure, having a nearly endless supply of cash doesn't hurt, but there are plenty of other companies with just as much capital as Google that have not seen nearly the success. There are a lot of things Google does well, and this article will delve into these with a focus on how they can be used in the public sector. Since Google is a company, not everything will translate directly, but considering how Google operates, there's much we can learn from the search giant turned innovation machine.

1. Execute Core Business Flawlessly

From the outside looking in, it may seem like Google is doing a million things at once. It's involved in everything from rural broadband and self-driving cars to medical advances that will allow us to live longer and more fulfilling lives. All of that was made possible because of its search and advertising business. Advertising still makes up the majority of the company's revenue, and according to eMarketer, Google accounts for more than 10 percent of all advertising spending in the U.S.

Google knows this, and it does this very well. Considering how much advertising has changed in the past two decades, that hasn't been an easy task. Understanding your core business is half the battle. Having that understanding makes every choice easier because at the end of the day everything you do should support that in some way. It may not always be completely obvious, but if you look at any of Google's business initiatives, they somehow relate back to the company's core business.

Government agencies must do the same. Leadership needs to understand what its primary function is and do that exceptionally well. Doing those things well will give you the opportunity to do other things. It will provide a solid foundation for leaders to make strategic decisions. Without knowing your primary objectives, you may find yourself getting spread too thin and end up not doing anything very well.

Image via Flickr/Danny Sullivan

2. Recruit Talent

Talented people rarely just fall into your lap. Even if they do, many of them despise the outdated and mundane application process most companies use. Google understands that talent is scarce and if it wants talent, it must go out and get it. The company has full-time recruiters that look for talent and a nimble onboarding process that allows new employees to hit the ground running.

Governments should take a similar approach. I am not saying that everyone has to go out and hire recruiters, but there are tons of resources available that HR can use to help find candidates. Most organizations know what they want in an employee, and now you have the ability to go out and find that exact person. So why do we just throw up a job posting and hope the ideal candidate will find it? People are much more likely to look at government if you reach out directly and explain why they would be a good fit. On top of that, more than 50 percent of employees are dissatisfied with their job, according to a 2014 survey on job satisfaction. That means you have pretty good odds that the person you’re targeting is willing to look at new opportunities.

Image via Google

3. Focus on Data

Google has some of the biggest and most sophisticated data centers in the world. Its business model is built around capturing and analyzing huge quantities of data. I doubt the company's focus on data is a huge surprise to anyone. What is interesting is how it gets that data. Google buys some of it but much of it comes through its products or services. Data gathering is built into its user experience, and government agencies should do the same.

Every time an interaction takes place there are numerous data points that can come out of it. Capturing that data should be a priority even if you do not know exactly what you are going to do with it yet. Data should be behind many of your decisions, and the more of it you have, the better decisions you can make. That requires you to make sure you're capturing all of the data available when interacting with your constituents and employees.

Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg

4. Project Teams

The concept of dedicated project teams is nothing new, but it can be somewhat tricky to implement. However, this isn't the case for Google, which has mastered this art. When a new challenge or opportunity presents itself, Google dedicates the necessary people to focus on it. The company finds people who have the necessary skills but, perhaps even more importantly, are passionate about the project. These teams are given the freedom to execute how they see fit and focus entirely on the project.

In government, you see some of this, but typically team members are stretched thin between other responsibilities. When setting up a team, you need to have a plan to temporarily transition other responsibilities off of its members while they work on the project. By doing so, you are able to speed up a project and get a better understanding of its viability. Not doing so often results in projects that are poorly executed and drag on for far too long. In addition, the team's daily tasks can suffer as its members try to focus on more than just the project at hand.

In 2013, innovation fellows worked with the U.S. Department of Education to determine how open data can improve student achievement. Photo by Paul Williams.

5. Innovation Time

Many of us are familiar with Google’s 20 percent time policy and the innovative products that have come out of it. If you're not, it's a policy that Google instituted early on that allows employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time on side projects that they find interesting. The policy had a lot of early success such as Gmail and AdSense but has morphed over the years. While many will argue that it no longer exists, the culture that it created does. The end result is a culture of side projects that Google happily provides the necessary resources to support.

Something similar could be done in government. Many agencies are strapped for resources as it is, but there are ways to approach it that will have less of an impact. You can limit “innovation time” to specific individuals, hold innovation workshops, have teams that focus on a specific innovation challenge, etc. There are ways to embrace the spirit of Google’s 20 percent time if you really want to. By doing so you can see many of the benefits that come from allowing motivated individuals to focus on something they are passionate about. 

Lexus RX450h SUVs equipped with Google self-driving tech
Image via Flickr/Phil Dokas

6. Moonshots

In 2010, Google created a discrete research lab called Google X. In some ways this was the next phase of its 20 percent time policy. Much of the crazy projects you hear about coming out of the company are Google X projects or otherwise referred to as "moonshots." This is where some of the most remarkable ideas from Google employees go to be researched, tested and implemented. It is a lab, and ideas that make it through often find their way back out into the world as a division of Google or a standalone company.

Even government needs its moonshots. It may require partnerships and dedicated resources, but government has to get back in the driver’s seat around innovation. Although it has only been relatively recently that government has turned over some of its innovation responsibilities to the private sector, the impact can already be seen.

There are certain innovations that can only come through government or nonprofits. It's not always easy to monetize things that are socially good, and some things need to be done sooner rather than later. This requires having a dedicated space where talented people can work on solving extremely difficult but world-changing ideas.

Ironically Google has already started the momentum in this area through its Government Innovation Lab. This is a great step in the right direction, and the partnership should prove to produce some amazing innovations. Government can learn from what Google has done and take these labs to the next level.

Image via Flickr/Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

7. Operate in Beta

Google is known for the extensive beta period on some of its products. Gmail stayed in beta for five years, and Google Docs was in it for three years. During that time Gmail accumulated more than 100 million users all while bolstering the beta tag. If millions of people are OK with a product they use daily being in beta, they are probably OK with it on new government services too.

Beta simply means that there may be some bugs and the product is still being improved. In the tech startup world, the concept of beta is ingrained into the culture. Many companies launch products that they know may have bugs or have limited functionality. The point is to get the product out and into people's hands. That way they can start getting feedback to prioritize features and bugs.

Perhaps LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman said it best: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This is especially important when implementing new online services or even a website. You may spend months working on features or compiling information that nobody cares about. Just do a controlled or silent release and provide an easy way for people to provide feedback.

Image via Flickr/Trey Ratcliff/StuckinCustoms.com

Final Thoughts

When you look at Google’s business model, you will notice that it operates like a bunch of small companies in many ways. This is supported by its recent restructuring and creation of an umbrella company called Alphabet. Under Alphabet exists numerous companies including Google X, Google Ventures, Google Fiber and the plain ol’ Google we're all familiar with.

I am not sure if Google restructured for financial, legal or business reasons, but we should not see a difference. I would like to think it is to help promote innovation and keep the nimble culture that has made it one of the most innovative companies in the world. Either way, what Google has done is nothing short of amazing. It operates like a business, research lab and university all in one. By doing a really good job at its core business, it's able to dabble in so many interesting things while still giving back to causes around the world.

If government organizations can take away just a few tips from Google, it is worth observing. They may never have all of the resources Google has but they do have a purpose. That's where innovation and motivation cross paths. That is what makes the world a better place.

If you enjoyed this article, we would appreciate you sharing it with your network. We would also love to hear your feedback or examples of where your organization has been Google-like.

Tim Howell Contributing Writer

Tim Howell is a former government technology and innovation guru for multiple government agencies across the state of Texas. His leadership and tech savvy quickly landed him at the bleeding edge of the public-sector market. Recently, he has taken his years of experience and success and founded made4gov.  By rethinking government content and promoting healthy discussions, he helps government agencies adapt to new technologies and meet the growing demands of citizens. Tim is also the author of the Innovation PACT, The No-Nonsense Guide to Sustainable Innovation. You can download the first section of Tim’s new book at http://www.innovationpact.com/free.

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