On Monday, Amazon announced that it would be partnering with the U.S. Postal Service to offer Sunday deliveries for packages in select markets, including New York and Los Angeles, before rolling out the initiative nationwide in 2014. As Brian Fung of The Switch noted, Amazon’s move could shake up the shipping industry while encouraging other types of “reverse contracting” arrangements, in which private sector companies essentially hire consumer-facing government agencies to do their work.
So what are some other examples of how America’s most innovative companies might hook up with leading U.S. government agencies?
One example is a potential combination of Airbnb, the popular couch-surfing service that has become a poster child for the sharing economy, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There’s already a precedent for such a combination. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, hotel rooms in the New York City area were at a premium, so HUD actually did hook up with Airbnb and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to offer rooms to low-income families who had been displaced by the storm. Airbnb created a free Sandy site to help connect victims of the storm with available housing, giving big-hearted New Yorkers a chance to help out with relief efforts by essentially donating their apartments.
In a reverse contracting arrangement, it would be Airbnb reaching out to HUD for room inventory, rather than HUD reaching out to Airbnb for available rooms. Airbnb could add more rooms to its inventory in every housing market in the country, especially in distressed neighborhoods. Instead of high-end vacation homes, Airbnb would get access to housing for lower-income families. Or, abandoned buildings in distressed neighborhoods could be “donated” to Airbnb, which would then take on the task of finding tenants for those buildings.
Or, how about a hookup of Google’s self-driving car unit with the U.S. Department of Transportation?
We already know that Google has been actively lobbying for its driverless cars to be legalized on a national basis. We also know that Google has been hunting for big-name partners for its driverless car business, most recently investing $258 million into Uber, the popular car-hailing service.
A hypothetical Google deal would need to be a win-win along the lines of the Amazon-U.S. Postal Service deal, in which Google gets an expanded rollout of its driverless cars, and cash-strapped state or federal agencies get a way to reduce their expenses and bask in the glow of an innovator.
One scenario might be a deal with a state transportation agency, in which, say, all off-peak buses are replaced with Google driverless cars. Instead of waiting for the bus in the dead of night and being one of a handful of passengers aboard, you would wait for the next Google driverless car to zip along and pick you up. Since the driverless car could be pre-programmed with a route, it would reduce the need for bus drivers. This would save state transportation agencies money by abolishing rarely-used bus routes, while giving Google a chance to extend the driverless car concept even further.
As tech companies expand into everything from green energy to space travel, and as government agencies deal with the specter of future government shutdowns, it’s easy to see similar examples just about everywhere you look. Blue Origin, the space exploration venture backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, could create a reverse contracting relationship with NASA. Tech companies that are getting into renewable energy — such as Google and Microsoft — could partner with the Department of Energy. Government agencies, working alongside the private sector, would then be able to transform technologies in innovative new ways.
Just imagine a future where every U.S. federal agency thinks like the U.S. Postal Service. You might have government agencies raising money for innovative new initiatives on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, connecting with fans (oops, citizens) on social media to fine-tune those ideas, and finally, partnering with major technology firms such as Amazon or Google to make those dreams a nationwide reality.
Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.