In The New Yorker, Wingham Rowan was described as a “labor reformer” who “wants to reimagine labor markets for the digital age.” In episode 167 of Economics Explored, Wingham talks to host Gene Tunny about the potential of Public Official e-Markets. Wingham is a former British TV presenter who is now the managing director at Modern Markets for All (MM4A), a non-profit seeking to advise governments on the possibilities of new market technologies.
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Links relevant to the conversation
Wingham Rowan’s Modern Markets for All website:
New Yorker coverage of Wingham’s work:
CIGI article by Wingham in which he argues “Market platforms are a natural monopoly; governments should dare to think about how they might initiate an alternative version for citizens and businesses.”
Modern Markets Initiative: https://www.modernmarketsinitiative.org/
Articles on workforce scheduling tools:
NB Kronos has subsequently rebranded as UKG: https://www.ukg.com
On the growth of irregular work hours:
Quality Jobs Index from Cornell University:
The UK government program (then called “Slivers-of-Time” working):
The fate of the Universal Credit program which the program was eventually folded into: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/15/universal-credit-colossal-catastrophe-national-audit-office
Website about MM4A’s gig work markets: www.BeyondJobs.com
The Californian platform in action: www.cedah.video
The local website about the program: www.WorkLB.org
Wikipedia article on the Tobin tax which Wingham mentions a few times:
Transcript: Modern markets for all w/ Wingham Rowan – EP167
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:00
Coming up on Economics Explored.
Wingham Rowan 00:03
The problem I have talking about platforms gene is that our conception of platform technologies at the moment is so distorted by the business models that work for Silicon Valley. They have nothing to do with the potential of these technologies.
Gene Tunny 00:23
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny broadcasting from Brisbane, Australia. This is episode 167 on public official E-markets. This episode’s guest Wingham Rowan is an advocate for the creation of such markets. Wingham is a former British TV presenter who is now the managing director at Modern Markets For All, a nonprofit seeking to advise governments on the possibilities of new market technologies. In the New Yorker magazine Wingham was described as a labour reformer who wants to reimagine labour markets for the digital age. Please check out the shownotes relevant links and information and for details where you can get in touch with any questions or comments. Let me know what you think about what either Wingham or I have to say in this episode. I’d love to hear from you. Right oh, now from my conversation with Wingham Rowan on modern markets for all. Thanks to my audio engineer Josh Crotts for his assistance in producing this episode. I hope you enjoy it.
Wingham Rowan, welcome to the show.
Wingham Rowan 01:26
Not at all. Kind of surprised to be here. I’m I’m not an economist. I’m just someone who sort of stumbled into what looks like a potentially very exciting area of economic policy.
Gene Tunny 01:38
Oh, excellent. Yes, yes. Well, I’ve seen your bio, and you’ve been described as a former British TV journalist and now a self identified policy entrepreneur. Could you please tell us how, how did that journey take place, please?
Wingham Rowan 01:55
Yeah, I was a television journalist in Britain in 1994, the ITV network, our main commercial network, was looking to do a show, a nighttime show, a bank software and gaming. And I said, No, no, there’s this newfangled thing coming out of America called the Internet. We need to do a show about this. It’s going to be really exciting. And I convinced them and I produced it, and I hosted it for five years. And in those days, the Internet was all about sex. And it’s often hard for people to understand, but you can actually get bored of working life full of foot fetishists, adult babies, alien abductees, voyeurs, exhibitionists, people who do odd things with champagne bottles. And so, I began, and I’ve always been a bit of a social justice warrior. And I’ve just got fixated on this idea of what is this tech potentially going to do, in terms of economic inclusion, economic opportunity for people on the fringes. And that led me to a think tank in London called Demos, which I was already a member. And I persuaded them to kind of convene a group of experts. And we began to address this. And we eventually came up with a realisation, that you could have online platforms for economic activity, that would be extraordinary in their ability to drive a more inclusive, dynamic, responsive, climate friendly form of capitalism. But it also became clear thinking that through that, governments would have to have some sort of role in initiating them. And we can get into that, and therefore it’s a public policy issue. And over the years, we have refined that public policy. And yeah, after a while, it just became very clear that sooner or later, something like this needs to happen. And somebody’s going to have to be doing the thinking to get it all ready and figure it all out. And that kind of fell into my lap as sort of group organiser. Plus, I really was getting too old to be interviewing people with bizarre sexual fetishes on late night TV.
Gene Tunny 04:10
Right. Yeah, that’s fascinating. So, so back. So how would you describe the the internet? I mean, now, I mean, in terms of what you saw back then, the promise that you that you saw, then the possibilities, we still have to unlock it. Is that that’s what you’re trying to do?
Wingham Rowan 04:31
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think what I have to explain is, what with hindsight seems like extraordinary naivety. But back in 95-96, when we were figuring all this out, before I wrote the kind of definitive book about it. It just seemed so obvious. It almost wasn’t worth talking about because it was so obvious that someone else was going to do it. Someone else will pay for someone else, better placed, but broadly if you can imagine a platform for all forms of economic activity that regular people and small businesses engage in. So if I’m an ordinary regular guy, I might want to sell the hours that I want to work today and I might be good at gardening, I might be able to drive a van, I can operate a switchboard, I’ve got a talent for pet care. I’ve been trained to work in a warehouse, and so on, you know, I have a whole range of skills that defy siloing I might have have sold assets that I want to trade, I’ve got a bike I don’t need this afternoon, I’m only going to rent it out to people are completely reliable, someone else will have to handle that checking in and checking it back, because I haven’t got time. But I could get a few dollars for that. And I need a few dollars. If Australia has barbecues don’t they? Well, is there a market you know, where people will want to rent an extra barbecue? What about toys? What about video consoles, beauty aids, all this sort of storage and you stare in the cupboard? You know those massive assets that people could monetize? What about sums I want to lend? I’ve got $30 I don’t need until Monday, how do I lend it not not in some hideously complex login register, create a profile just seamlessly all in one platform that does it all in one place. And I need to be able to do this with data on where my opportunities are, I need a market that supports interventions and investment in my development as gaps in the market become clear. It all needs to be extraordinarily low cost and so on. And what I’m talking about is the public utility, like the electricity supply, the water supply, like roads. I’m not talking about a sizzling Silicon Valley investment opportunity. It’s the antithesis of the model that Silicon Valley eventually came up with. So as I say this all seemed utterly obvious. But no one else seemed to be saying it. So a group of us in London sort of knocked it together, I put out a book for Demos in 97, that sort of fumbled towards some of these conclusions. And then Britain’s, at the time most famous futurist Charles Handy, got involved, very helpful. And through him, I got an international book deal. And a book came out about it all for me in 1999.
Gene Tunny 07:26
Right. And so what was that book Wingham? And have you been a policy entrepreneur since then? Was that what launched you into…?
Wingham Rowan 07:33
No, I still had a day job hosting racy late night TV show. Well, so the first thing to say is the book sank without a trace. So it came out in February 1999. I’m kind of embarrassed to mention the title because it’s now seems so outdated, but it was called Net Benefit. And it was published by Macmillan in Europe, and St Andrews Press in the US and various other publishers around the world. But it absolutely sank like a stone. And by I think April that year, a book called I think Dow 36,000 hit the shelves, and it predicted like the internet is gonna be this explosion of wealth for shareholders. And that dominated the charts for a while. And then a few months later along came Dow 50,000, which said sort of the same thing with a bit more hyperbole. And then I think December that year along came Dow 100,000 by which point? I mean, these are all these books were off in their projections. But they were absolutely right about their core thesis, which is, which was the internet is just going to unlock huge amounts of wealth for investors, it’s not going to turn, it’s not going to be harnessed to create sort of economic platforms for the benefit of people at the economic base. So they were right, I was wrong. But it doesn’t go away. Right? We absolutely need this. And it’s very interesting. When you look at the history of I’m going to call it technology driven public utilities, you see a pattern of decades in the wilderness, and then suddenly it all begins to happen. And that has both fascinated and sustained me in my post television career.
Gene Tunny 09:26
Okay, we might talk about this in a moment? I’ll read from your, you wrote an article didn’t you in the Centre for International Governance Innovation that’s on the web, I’ll put a link in the show notes. Market platforms are a natural monopoly, governments should dare to think about how they might initiate an alternative version for citizens and business. So yeah, be keen to talk about that. One thing I’m wondering is what do you think of the current platforms that exist because there are certainly sharing economy, or whatever you call them, or two sided market platforms that exist. We’ve got Airbnb and then we’ve got Upwork, and Fiverr, and all of that. So what’s your view of the current state of play? And where we need to get to? And why do you think what you’re proposing is superior to that please Wingham.
Wingham Rowan 10:24
Existing platforms suck compared to what’s possible, they really, really do. And so if you want to understand what economic activity platforms can do, and I’m sorry, I have to use quite clunky language, because otherwise we get mixed up with social media and so on, which is outside the scope of this discussion, as far as I’m concerned. So if you want to know what economic platforms can do, look at what’s happened to Wall Street in the last 20-25 years, they have moved from kind of phone based trading and shouting across trading floors, to two platforms that trade with unimaginable precision with virtually zero costs, where risk is all but mitigated, where they have tools like collars on their losses, where they can trade across asset classes instantly, and fluidly. Governments have provided the regulatory background that allows those markets to thrive, these are in almost inconceivably broad, deep platforms, they have powered financialization, the, it’s now so efficient to invest 100 million in the financial markets, and we’ve got this huge suck up out of the mainstream economy. So that’s what’s possible. And when you look at what regular people have to sell, our key economic asset for 99% of us is that time, it’s what employers pay for. So what about markets for selling their time for people selling the time, they’re very different markets, they need very different functionality, they happen to be much more complex. But we do not have anything like markets that approach Wall Street’s level of efficiency, opportunity generation, risk mitigation, and so on. So you mentioned Airbnb, and so on. Uber is another great example. So Uber, as a platform has displaced taxi companies. Well, I talked about Uber because they’ve been subjected to unusual levels of scrutiny. So we know for example, that Uber has systematically missed this. So I’m sorry, when you evaluate an economic platform, don’t focus on what it does for buyers, cool new ways to buy stuff, don’t shift the economic dial, it’s what they do for sellers of whatever is on offer that we need to focus on. So focus on Uber not as a transportation app, but as a labour market, because that’s what it is for a lot of people. Is it a good labour market? No, it sucks. It’s, they take about 30% of your earnings. And they need to do that because they massively subsidised rides when they arrive in a new city to build critical mass and they’ve got to recoup that money. They have been caught systematically misleading drivers because they need an oversupplied market, you get very little data, you get marginal control. You know, Uber decides what, where you’re going, what you’ll be paid. You can’t build a regular client base, you can’t innovate. All the kinds of things that a dynamic market would allow. Uber doesn’t allow, and it’s a silo, you are stuck driving. There’s no progression pathway. You could be driving an Uber this year, and you’d be driving an Uber five years from now, where’s the movement? You know, what, where’s my ability to sell my other talents? That’s what I mean by the breadth of the market now in Wall Street, you know, that, that asset classes can be merged. Because they have the tools that dive into deeply regulated markets across all sorts of asset classes. So no, the existing platforms are awful. They are better than the old way we used to do things classified adverts, adverts in newspaper, sorry, adverts in newsagents windows, but that doesn’t make them the best markets possible. We need to focus on the best markets possible for the economic base. And have we got and we absolutely haven’t. We’ve got hideous inequality of markets. And it’s mostly out of sight. So you read you hear an awful lot about the gig work apps. They’re awful, most of them fail. There’s a famous HBR, Harvard Business Review article called a study of 250 platforms reveals why most of them fail. And when they fail, you know, the entrepreneurs who set them up can write that off to experience. What about the people who were selling their time? You know, when Homejoy the market for home cleaning in the US just collapsed overnight. That just left a whole load of people with their immediate flow of work cancelled their relationships with people who buy their labour canceled, that track record wiped. And so that is the problem, let’s call it market inequality, that people at the top, the big institutions at the top of the economy have trans transition to unbelievably efficient markets and we barely understand them. And people at the bottom have been that I’ve had to follow the buyers of their labour or whatever, into markets that are typically skewed around commoditizing. The workforce driving down labour costs, keeping the market over supplied, locking people into a narrow silo. And you really need to look at, and not so much the gig work apps, but at work for scheduling systems, which run monopsony markets, where one corporate buys the time of their employees, these things have exploded in the last few years get very little coverage, not very well understood, negligible transparency. That’s the world of markets today. You know, these platforms run markets, for labour, for capital, for services and for goods. And markets are totally fundamental to a capitalist economy. And they’re getting more and more so because so many drivers are fragmenting economic activity. And the more you’re driven towards fragmented economic activity, the more you’re in and out of the market. Yeah, sorry. Did I did I go off on a bit of a rant?
Gene Tunny 16:22
No, that was good, that was good. What are the workforce scheduling apps? What ones are you thinking of?
Wingham Rowan 16:30
Well yeah, the most famous, which came out I think, in 2018, is called Kronos Workforce Central Aid. They’ve rebranded subsequently to UKG and their website is full of photos of happy smiling, presumably workers. But there’s actually some documentation, I’m very happy to share it with you that they were using, which they would take to Corporate Finance Directors, presumably, and it would use phrases like manage your workforce without limits, no boundaries. It’s fantastic. It’s an unbeatable proposition. If I’m the finance director of a supermarket chain, hotel chain distribution company, my God, you know, staffing is my biggest cost. And these tools can absolutely box it in and minimise it a lot. Sign it with my needs. But the risk the all the problems are just dumped on low income workers, who often don’t know if they’re gonna go into work today. And if they’re not, they’re left scrambling for extra hours elsewhere. They still got to put food on the table tonight. It’s pretty hideous. And what really motivates us at this end is look at what’s possible. You know, and I think that is the key problem here is politicians and policymakers and think tanks, and economists are focused on well, how do we try to make Silicon Valley play nice. Yeah. And they’re engaged in these endless Whack-A-Mole battles with big tech that, frankly, they’re never going to win. And we can go into why that is. And then instead, they should be asking a completely different question, which is, have we got the best markets now possible in which our citizens and local businesses can pursue their economic potential? And if not, could policy change that?
Gene Tunny 18:28
Right, okay, so are you suggesting we need a common we need common market platforms, we need some sort of, we don’t need separate upwork and a fiver, we need a common platform. How would you describe it?
Wingham Rowan 18:47
Yeah, absolutely. So let’s, can I use a quick historical analogy? Because that’s the easiest way to understand that these things are always easiest to see in hindsight. So every so often, throughout history of the last two centuries, a technology has come along that needed the government to do something that only governments could do to get that technology to its full potential. So one of my favourite examples, for instance, is pumping. Industrial pumping arrived in about 1820, a whole bunch of small companies sprang up to pump river water in cities like London into well off households. And they made quite a bit of money, it was a lot more convenient than going to the river with a bucket. But meanwhile, the poor were just dying of cholera. And a bunch of people said, actually, you know, if we use this technology in a different way to create reservoirs, we could pump clean water 24/7 to everyone, but only government can make that happen because only government can forcibly buy valleys. evict people who live there, flood the valleys and then dig up everywhere to put in trunk water piping. 1848 public health care In Britain, essentially initiated that process, every country in the world copied. So you can see something similar in electricity, rail, roads, broadcasting telephony, air traffic control, gas canals, and so on. Every so often there’s a technology that needs something that only government can do. And governments for all the right reasons are slow to do it, you know, governments should not just intervene on a whim, there needs to be an absolute clear cut case of market failure. But eventually, one does, and one government gets it right. And, you know, got modesty aside, Britain and British was, has done pretty well at this. And then when the first country gets it, right, others follow. And eventually everyone does. So every country has a coordinated postage system, a coordinated currency. And right now, government has dictated this possibility when it comes to economic platforms. They really are, you know, this, what’s happening now with economic platforms would be akin to the British government in the 1840s, trying to beat up these little water companies, and there were hundreds of them and get them to be more inclusive, get them to pump clean water, well, they couldn’t pump clean water because they couldn’t stop other people using the river as a sewage outlet. Only government could put people in jail for chucking sewage in rivers. So it wouldn’t have worked. They needed to start with, what is this technology need to deliver its potential? what can government do to deliver that? And the answer is it needs reservoirs. And for that, you need compulsory land purchase rights, which even the most ambitious startup doesn’t have. So in answer to your question, don’t focus on the existing ones, the existing platforms, they’re kind of interesting. They’re not bad people. But their job isn’t to create an inclusive version of capitalism. Their job is to maximise return for their shareholders, and some of them are doing reasonably well at that. It’s we elect governments to create equitable economy, inclusive, dynamic, efficient economy, that minimises public assistance costs. It’s government that needs to start asking these questions. That’s what’s missing.
Gene Tunny 22:26
Okay. And so this is what you’re you’re trying to get governments to, to do something. Are you Wingham? Could you tell me a bit about what you’re doing in California at the moment? What’s your mission?
Wingham Rowan 22:39
Yeah, so take this notion of that we call modern markets for all this idea that just as government provides us routinely with its government’s responsibility, generally, to make sure we have electricity, that we have clean, drinkable water, that we have a coherent road network, and so on all these facilities that we just utterly take for granted as part of a modern economy. So what we’re saying is this now, the latest on this list is a platform for economic activity. And just like all the other public utilities, it needs to be completely inclusive, it needs to do a whole set of things that the private sector can’t do or has no incentive to do. So. Yeah. If you take that as the kind of guiding spirit here, once we’ve kind of figured this out, the worry. And once we realised that actually, it wasn’t obvious that other people weren’t going around saying it at the time. We, the question became, so what are we going to do about it now, and what we didn’t want is what I’m going to possibly unjustly called the The Tobin tax syndrome, where, as I understand it, the Tobin tax is a very elegant idea that could do a lot of good, but it’s never been implemented. And Tobin has toured the world economic conferences talking about it and won a lot of applause for his work. But it’s never been done. And we don’t want to be in that category. We wanted to get something going. So we tried to figure out which bit of this huge sort of public utility vision could we just bite off and get going? And the answer is, markets for what’s now called gig work. So about 35% of adults cannot work regular hours. They have complex parenting needs, medical issues that fluctuate day to day, family caregiving commitments that are unpredictable. They’re studying on a fluid schedule increasingly, their numbers being swollen by people who are partially employed and never know their work schedule. So you’ve got this huge mass of adults who need at work that fits around other things going on in their lives. And so that’s it over here, over there, you have what are called government employment services, job centres. I forgotten what they’re called in Australia. But typically, in America, they are called America’s job centres. And the government invests hundreds of millions a year in this infrastructure to create equitable labour markets. It’s bipartisan, nobody doubts it’s worth it. It grows the economy, it gets people off public assistance, it upskill the workforce, it brings in investment, it’s just a good thing all around. But these government employment services do nothing for people who don’t fit into the neat pigeonhole, of having regular availability for work. People who have complex lives, who just aren’t lucky enough to be able to say, Yeah, I can do 36 hours every week at the same time in the same place. So the small mission, the small vision, as we call it, at this end is extend government employment services, so that they bring everything that they aim to do for job seekers, too. We don’t like the term gig workers, because it’s it carries too much baggage. And it only describes a small proportion of the people we’re aiming for. So we use the phrase non standard workers. So the British government actually got off his butt and funded this. And I was appointed to lead the initiative, we built a platform that is all about protections and control and progression for people outside of standard employment. It was launched by 20 city governments in Britain, it was what seemed like really good news at the time, but turned out to be a disaster. It was then made a cornerstone of ambitious programmes to completely overhaul Britain’s buys and time welfare regime. And it was all these city pilots were shut down, it was all incorporated into this big amazing programme called universal, universal benefit, a sort of Universal Credit. Anyway, you’ve probably heard in your line of work, Gene, but Universal Credit has turned into an absolutely epic disaster. And opinions are the contributors own not not an official statement from the British government. But it’s something like five years behind schedule on four times over budget or the other way around. Anyway, they began shedding everything that wasn’t core and included us. And so we suddenly find ourselves looking around the world and realise, well, no other countries done anything like this. We’ve got this sophisticated platform. And we talked to the British embassies, philanthropist took over paying my salary and said, we’ll go figure this out. We put the tech in a nonprofit for open source into the world. And we talked to the British embassies and they said, go to America. They’ve got something called the public workforce system. They invest billions of it a year. It’s consists of 2400 local workforce boards. And we did and I toured various workforce, public workforce boards around America, and we ended up launching in California with public agencies funded by national philanthropies like all these workforce systems around the world, America’s federally funded workforce dollars can only go on traditional job creation and retention. It’s just a rather 20th century view of the world. But there is this the Franklin’s sort of guerrilla operation within farsighted workforce boards, who realise Yeah, why am I turning away people just because they’re trying to make rent on Friday, rather than because, you know, they want to be upskilled to a better job. And why am I throwing them at the mercy of these, frankly, rather unpleasant Silicon Valley companies that will treat them as cannon fodder. And yeah, I don’t want to paint a picture of this is easy and we’re on a meteoric trajectory. It’s three steps forward, two steps back public sector led innovation is always difficult. But we are steadily making the case that, yeah, Public Employment Services can sustainably scalable expand, to embrace people who are not fortunate enough to have regular availability for work. They need a platform to do that. It’s going to be very different from the platform that silicon for kind of platforms that Silicon Valley churns out, our platform is called Good Flexi. Yeah, I mean, you could have it for Australia. It’s just we don’t have the resources to engage anyone in the Australian Government.
Gene Tunny 29:52
Yep. So you’ve got, I just want to make sure I understand all the facts properly. So you’ve got your non-for-profit, Modern Markets For All. Is that what it’s called?
Wingham Rowan 30:00
Gene Tunny 30:05
Okay. And you’re, you’re working with California, is it the California state government?
Wingham Rowan 30:10
No, it’s public workforce boards at local levels.
Gene Tunny 30:11
Oh, public workforce boards at local levels.
Wingham Rowan 30:16
It’s narrow, it’s expanding outside California.
Gene Tunny 30:19
Good one, okay. And you’re encouraging them to extend their services to people who are in non standard employment. So you’re encouraging them to offer is it training or advice on the workforce of connecting them with opportunities.
Wingham Rowan 30:35
all the above, okay, you want all sorts of interventions and non standard workers are an incredibly diverse bunch. They have different needs different aspirations, they’re on different pathways. But the core of it is if you are to systematically sustainably scalablely support these people, you have to have some sort of platform. This is such a fiddly complex part of labour markets. And when you go to a horizontal model, all types of work because that’s how you get progression, you need people to be able to move along from one type of work to another, that’s better paid higher skilled and keep moving up the ladder. Once you do that, it gets more complex. Once you make everything legal, once you make everything what’s called in America, a w-2, essentially, someone with employee status and protections not an independent contractor, it gets exponentially more complex, when you want to give everyone the data they need, it gets very complex. So you need a completely different kind of platform. And that’s what the British government created. It’s been Americanized with philanthropic funding. And yeah, it’s it’s now launched and the battle is, is persuading this huge system to pioneer something like this, given that all their federal funding and their targets, and their assessment is geared towards their ability to create jobs and keep people in jobs. And if you’re a workforce director in America, you are strongly disincentivized, from bringing non standard workers into your customer base, because they will drag down your outputs. Because somebody who only needs eight hours of work a week is bad news, if you’re being marked on your ability to get people into full time or formal part time work. So yep, so that’s the implementation at the moment. But what’s interesting Gene, from our point of view, is the kind of crisis of capitalism. I suppose, you know, 40% of Americans think socialism is a good thing. Now COVID, I can’t remember there’s some survey about the number of people who want to go back to pre COVID capitalism, and it’s something like 7% of the population. Now, and then you’ve got what capitalism is doing, as it currently can, constituted what it’s doing to the climate. So the drivers sense that somewhere there is going to be an ambitious politician who says, I got it, you know, I’m not going to fight in the old trenches of tax versus welfare and all this sort of stuff. Let those battles raged on. I am going to colonise a whole new era of political thinking, and it around, I am going to articulate what’s wrong with the new plumbing of capitalism. And what we need to what the questions we need to ask to get it right. And at the moment, I really would stress for a politician that the the policy space to be grabbed just involves asking questions, you don’t need to commit to do anything to be a trailblazer here, this is all this growth of platforms, and what they’re doing, particularly to people at the economic base, is kind of, I mean, we all know there’s something not right there, but it’s not being coherently articulated. It’s very poorly understood. So that’s what we’re trying to do. But yeah, we wanted to do something real. We didn’t want to be in the Tobin situation. And so, for what it’s worth, we dived in and you know, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve gone down cul de sacs. We’ve had disappointments, but my God, the body of learning around all this is fascinating. I mean, what, what platforms could what platform technologies could be doing? With a different structure with a different set of incentives is mind blowing.
Gene Tunny 34:42
Right. So you’re good? Was it Good Flexi you were talking about?
Wingham Rowan 34:47
Yeah, that’s what we call the platform for non standard employment. Yeah. Which is kind of think of it as a proof of concept for something much bigger. That is, it spans the entire range of micro economic activity rather than just people who need very fluid work?
Gene Tunny 35:06
And what sort of numbers have you got on that at the moment when I’m able to disclose that?
Wingham Rowan 35:11
Yeah, I mean, it’s small. I can tell you it’s in the hundreds. It was due to launch in Easter 2020 in California, focused on hospitality and elder care. Originally, I don’t need to tell you what happened to those sectors as COVID hit, we were refocused around responsive child care for essential low income essential workers. So we have a pool of childcare workers who could be booked as required. They’ve all vetted and everything. And then that was funded largely with COVID money. And then there was public funding to expand across all sectors. And that’s what we’re now doing in Los Angeles County. And meanwhile, philanthropies come forward to fund expansion into other cities. So right now, in terms of number of people transacting today, it’s in the hundreds. You know, this, you’ve caught this story early. It’s not a story of wow, I’m blown away by your Facebook like growth. It’s, I can tell you the procurement hurdles, the legal barriers, and the complexity of getting big blocks of demand from flexible, flexible labour into a new platform are formidable. And we have to turn to the public sector demand for flexible labour, school districts, Parks and Rec departments, public services, because we cannot, in the early stage tempt the big private sector buyers of flexible labour, retail, hospitality, distribution, care building, and so on, out of their workforce scheduling systems, which are so cost effective for them. If you’re running a workforce of 1000s. In a monopsony market, where you are the only buyer where you your system decides who’s called in and who’s sent home when, in the exact line with your needs, where anybody who gets a pity, you just tick a box and never see them again. Why on earth should you move that demand for labour and your workers into a platform that’s going to expose those workers to a whole range of other opportunities is going to systematically work to get new boundaries and new skills to monetize a whole range of each person’s unique abilities? Why would you do that? You’re not. You’re not going to do it in phase one. Now if we can build the demand from public sectors, by have flexible labour and government in aggregate is the biggest buyer flexible labour in any economy, then we’re going to leave you as the supermarket chief, finding his workers migrating into the public sector platform in unless you come in and offer to buy them through the platform that is going to be advancing them and giving them data and showing them where their new opportunities are, and so on. So that’s the challenge. And it is three steps forward, two steps back, it requires patience, it can be frustrating, but my God, it’s needed.
Gene Tunny 38:26
Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
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Gene Tunny 39:01
Now back to the show. So this platform, do you envisage it? It has to be publicly funded?
Wingham Rowan 39:11
No, absolutely not. So it is partially publicly funded at the moment, and not with Federal workforce dollars. But that’s because it’s small vision, small scale, if we go back to the Big Vision, so let’s assume for a moment that the Australian Government says we’re gonna take a worldwide lead on this, we are going to instigate a policy of modern markets for all we are going to assume that it’s government’s role to ensure that everybody has access to the best markets now possible, not the best markets, Silicon Valley wants to give the best markets now possible in which to pursue their economic potential. So the Australian Government says that they then say, well, we’re not going to fund this because that would be politically unpalatable. And it’s all got to be based on choice. We are just here to give people a choice of economic infrastructure, we’re not going to shut down eBay, or Airbnb or Uber or DoorDash, or Postmates, or any of these 1000s of platforms that are out there. Now, we’re just going to give everyone a choice. They can use the public utility if they want, use it a bit, use it not at all, totally up to them. It’s the same with electricity. Nobody forces you to connect to the public electricity supply, go and buy your own generator. So assume the Australian Government says that, what do they do? And the short answer is, and there’s a huge amount of detail behind this. But you, you want a concession. It’s the model that governments typically use to create lotteries. So government has key features, key facilities that it alone can bestow on any platform for economic activity. So first of all, it can direct its huge spend on things like labour through the new platform. So that’s nurses, teachers, everything. Secondly, it can allow the platform to interface into all the official databases. So I say I want to be, I want to sell my time as a truck driver, I want to rent out my room for which I need to prove I’ve got a fire certificate. The platform will say to me, Well, do you give me the platform permission to look up your truck driving licence on the official government register of driving licences. And then once it’s done that I can sell my time as a truck driver. You want the government’s promotion channels, you want to be promoting the platform to tourists, to businesses, to taxpayers, to welfare claimants, to students, to all the people that the government routinely reaches, you want to interface into the courts. So if let’s say you hire me to come and drive a forklift truck in your warehouse today, and I drive through a wall and the warehouse collapses, and it turns out that I was high on drugs, that you don’t have to pursue it. Well, no, take a less dramatic example, you know, I back the forklift into some unit and damage it. You don’t have to sort of tediously begin a whole process of getting me downgraded and everything. The platform allows me to tell my side of the story and captures yours. It’s kept my payment in escrow, so it’s taking the money from you and held it. But ultimately, if the platform cannot push us to a resolution, it can put it into the courts, and the courts can downgrade me in the same way that the courts have the unique power to downgrade our driving licences. So I have an officially backed record of trading reliability that is really useful to me, and I can’t go market to market to market. In the public markets, there is only one official track record. It’s a bit like your driving licence, if you get, you know, six points in a disqualification, you can’t go to someone else to get another driving. That’s it, you can’t use the government roads, which are all roads effectively. So these are the kind of benefits there’s a whole set of obligations that need to be enforced as part of the concession I can go into those to ensure that the platform really is driving micro economic activity. That’s fair, it’s equitable. It’s fully featured, that it’s federal, it’s not got concentrated power, that it’s truly independent, and so on. And it charges a flat percentage markup on each transaction to fund a return for the operators. Because they’re going to fund the whole thing, design it and build it. And then you say, right, this concession is for 15 years across the whole of Australia. In that time, no one else will get these government awarded benefits. And whoever whichever consortium will build, fund and operate our platform for those 15 years for the lowest percentage cut of each transactions value gets the deal. And you do the modelling and the figure. It might be a bit higher for Australia, but it’s a random 1.5- 2% markup. It’s not 30%, which is what people at the base of the economic pyramid tend to be paying as a benchmark now. Yeah, so that’s it. We call this platform Poems, Public Official E-Markets. It is just a public utility that’s regulated. It’s there to use if you want, and if you don’t, that’s fine. You might choose to use it to get a haircut, get your lawn cut, and so on. But you choose not to use it when you want to book childcare or when you want to sell your time as a bookkeeper. It’s if it doesn’t work, the shareholders of the consortium are backed it takes a huge hit. If it works, it will massively grow economic activity. At the base, and the shareholders will be getting 2% of what could be billions and billions of dollars of new economic activity that they took all the risks they designed. No capital mass, good luck to them. They deserve it.
Gene Tunny 45:14
Yeah. Okay. So that model, that financial model, you’re talking about where you’re estimating, you could actually just have a 1 to 2% markup, there’s no, you’re not assuming any community service obligation paid by government.
Wingham Rowan 45:29
No, yeah, there is a public service obligation. Yeah. So nearly all public utilities have a non revenue component, you know, cyclists use the road network without paying road tax. Broadcasters have to carry religious and preschool programming, without advertising. So yeah, in this case, yes, there’s a range of things, once you’ve got the infrastructure to do this, that is able to check people’s identity, constantly keep monitoring it, if they wish. Yes, you might want to use it for things like voting, forming social networks. So connecting isolated elderly, people, volunteering, things like that. So yes, that is a community service obligation within that,
Gene Tunny 46:19
Okay. And then there would have to be a payment from the government to this.
Wingham Rowan 46:26
Not necessarily so you think if government says, where we want a platform that does X, Y, and Z across the base of the micro, the whole micro economy, and we are going to give that among the benefits we’re going to give that platform is we’re going to direct all public spending down to community level through that platform, that’s 30-35% of GDP in most developed countries. That’s a heck of a business opportunity. Now, if you’re going to say, as a government. Oh, and as part of that, you’ve got to fulfil certain community service obligations. Yeah, I as a consortium bidding to run your Poems or whatever it’s called platform, it’s just going to price that in, frankly, the infrastructure I’m going to have to build to monetize all these assets in the micro economy can run a, a plebiscite on whether, you know, a bunch of neighbours want to shut the road to traffic this weekend, so the kids can play in the road with no problem. I mean, we are talking about something a platform that will be hugely, hugely sophisticated, that will cost billions to build. That’s why you need a kind of 15 year concession, you’ve got to give them a chance to recoup that investment.
Gene Tunny 47:46
Yeah, well, I think it’s a great vision. One thing I’d like to ask you about is, how constrained are you by regulations that exist at the moment. And I’m thinking particularly in the labour market in Australia, we’re currently having a debate about the Fair Work Act and check possible changes to that. There’s, there are awards and there are all sorts of rules around hiring people, and what minimum shift lengths are that are just frustrating for employers? And I mean, I think that they’re, they are limiting people from taking on opportunities. I don’t think they’re in the best interests of workers necessarily. But then you’ve got the unions, you’ve got a political party here, that is very closely tied to the union movement, that I mean, I’m not sure exactly what they would think of this this type of thing. I’m, I’m concerned that the way that we do things in Australia, and I mean, this is something that I mean, regardless of the party that’s in government. There’s, we’ve got, we’ve had a highly regulated labour market, is that a barrier to the rollout of Poems?
Wingham Rowan 49:12
It isn’t necessary. So it goes without saying that the Poems platform has to enforce the law. And if the law is you have to have a minimum shift length of six hours. That’s what it will do. Personally, because I’ve spent an awful lot of time with people who are in non standard work. I think regulations like that can be very cruel. If I’ve got an injury that means I have back pain that comes and goes day to day and I’m waking up every morning thinking, well can I work today and the answer might be I’ll have to decide after lunch. I certainly can’t at the moment, depending on if my back pain goes away, depends if I get my parents into the Alzheimer’s centre, depends if one of my siblings can look after my disabled kid this afternoon. So the intention behind these rules is undoubtedly good. And it is undoubtedly true that big employers are using these aggressive workforce scheduling systems to push people into very precarious work, which is incredibly debilitating of their family, finances and their mental health even. So, I totally support the reasons that people are doing this. Unfortunately, a lot of these acts don’t work. And I mean, just to digress for a moment, what’s happened in America, where they’ve been having these Fair Work Week acts in some cities for some time, is that you then get a whole crop of companies that spring up with what’s called Tap the app staffing. So they will go, typically imagine a store manager, who’s told we’ve got to schedule the staff in your supermarket for weeks ahead. And these companies will say to the store manager, when you don’t know how busy your store is going to be, you know, this afternoon, let alone four weeks from now. So why don’t you just sort of let employees go. And we’ll just have a pool of temporary workers. And you just tell us how many you want each day, just tap the app in the morning, we’ll put it out to bed, we’ll see who will do it, we’ll send them along to anyone you don’t like just tap next to their name. And as I say, you’ll never see them again. And some of these apps will algorithmically calculate the lowest wage they need to pay to get the required number of people into your store today. So don’t underestimate the deviousness, the deep pockets, the aggression of the companies that are driving this, it really you we really need to think about what’s an alternative model, because in a healthy market, a healthy labour platform. You give people far, far more choice. So if the employer is bad, I might be flipping burgers today. And the employer might be awful. But if I’m proving reliability, and I’ve got all this data? Well, you know, there’s a real short, you know, we noticed you like you’re using the platform to spend time in an amateur soccer team. Well, did you know that there’s a chronic shortage of a system soccer coaches at the moment? Do you want to start doing some of that work on Saturdays, we noticed that you’ve got a qualification in gardening from when you were at school. Did you know that there are landscape crews now staffing up for the summer rush in public parks? Do you want some of that work, and eventually, you’re going to be able to turn off the burger flipping, which means the burger company that’s such a rubbish employer is now going to be constantly in churn. They’re just constantly onboarding people who build some sort of track record of reliability, and then they’re off up the ladder. So I mean, I need to make absolutely clear that unions in a democratic society have an absolute place in any platform. And there’s all sorts of new services and new models that the platform can enable for them. So there is absolutely you know, please don’t assume that when I talk about a platform, it’s synonymous with very short term, churning relationships sort of work. The problem I have talking about platforms Gene is that our conception of platform technologies at the moment is so distorted by the business models that work for Silicon Valley, they have nothing to do with the potential of these technologies. They aren’t just about maximising profits for, you know, the corporate operator or the owner of the market platform. That’s very different from running a public utility.
Gene Tunny 54:00
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Okay. So to wrap up, when would you be able to talk about your next steps? And anything? Well, guess what’s where to from now? Well, and then I guess, in the next year or so, what are you hoping to do?
Wingham Rowan 54:17
Fascinating question, Gene. Absolutely. Fascinating. So I banks, I’m almost tempted to banks the question back to you, okay. We, if you look at this history of public utilities, they’re often a key part played by individuals who then pretty much get forgotten by history. But what we now take for granted as the public road system was pretty much invented by a New York property manager called William Phelps, you know, in the 1890s. And everyone opposed him and that was just the people who didn’t completely ignore him, and it took him 30 years before there was recognised that oh my god, if the government initiated a system of roads, it could be so much better than the sort of dirt tracks and random toll roads that we’re all using now. And the public water supply was pretty much the brainchild of a civil servant called Edwin Chadwick, a school teacher in the English Midlands called Rowland Hill, pretty much invented what we now call the Postal Service, but which he called Penny postage, and his model was copied around the world. So my question, my philosophical point that I discuss with people all the time is, what’s the 21st century equivalent of that? You know, these people badgered away for years in total obscurity, well, we got that under the belt. And eventually, they kind of made their argument through reason and luck, and they plugged into the right person at the right time. So New York State was the first to recognise government had a role in creating a coherent road network. And then the government of France. Europe was next. So it’s pretty random. But how do you do it in the 21st century? How do you do it when politics is so polarised when there is 1000 times the attention that is paid to platform issues is paid to the issue of what kind of bathrooms transgender kids use, you know, when men leave it to the schools and get back to focusing on what really matters here? Why isn’t this issue? Getting the attention it deserves? Yeah, if I was going to be really cheeky, Gene, I’d say, well, why don’t you use your clout to assemble a group of Australian policymakers and let’s do some sort of webinar and test the waters on it, because sooner or later, somebody who can move the dial is going to come across all this, and kick the tires and realise there’s something here, you know, us at this end may not have got it completely, right. But this notion that government could now initiate platforms for economic activity that would solve so many problems that are out there at the moment, isn’t going to go away, somebody is going to do the political land grab and get the kudos for it. And we’re just looking for that person plus, just to be completely transparent and honest, we’re also looking for resources. You know, this is a very cash strapped operation, because people typically don’t really don’t understand what we’re doing. They would rather be pouring money into fighting Silicon Valley. Yeah. So they aren’t. Let me ask you, what could you do? We’re ready to explain it. We, we, we’ve had the tires kicked in multiple scenarios, we have not connected to the right people yet in terms of policy leaders, or the people with the resources to say, You know what, here’s a million dollars, just go and talk to the world, you know, get a team together and go and talk to the world’s governments and start to move on this.
Gene Tunny 58:11
Yeah. I like the idea of a webinar to start with. And there’s certainly people I know who would be interested in this. One of my colleagues, Nicholas Gruen and has written a lot about digital public private partnerships. So I think he is of a similar mind, in the potential of, of the web, have the technology just been underutilized at the moment? So I think, I think you’d have a lot of potentially a lot of interest in this. So yeah, but it’s something you’ll have to leave with me
Wingham Rowan 58:49
I’ve completely put you on the spot.
Gene Tunny 58:51
That’s fine. I think it’s a good question.
Wingham Rowan 58:54
There is this tendency to say, Oh, that’s really interesting. And we’ll talk about something else next week. And what I’m trying to find is the people who say, actually, this is really interesting. And we need to seriously get the people together who can do something about it. Because otherwise it just stays in obscurity. And we’re all fighting the old battles and trying to battle with the Silicon Valley behemoth. And we’re not getting anywhere.
Gene Tunny 59:21
Yeah, yeah, I think it’d have to be this concession model that you’re talking about. And because I think if the proposal came up, that we’d have this new platform and the government had something to do with it, then people would be concerned because we haven’t had a great history in Australia in the last couple of decades of governments building platforms like that.
Wingham Rowan 59:45
You absolutely don’t want government building, running or funding the platform. It would be terrifying. It’d be like government running broadcasting. You just don’t go there. You absolutely want the government to use its leverage to create a new private sector organisation consortium that hasn’t, but the legislation that creates it has to make sure it has no incentive to do anything other than massively grow economic activity at the economic base. That is the only way they can make their return. You’ve got to block off air all the dirty tricks that Silicon Valley plays at the moment. They’ve just got to grow the economy. And if they get very rich from getting everyday Australians more and more employment and opportunity and monetizing their household assets, good. We’re very happy for them. And if they can’t make it work, they’re gonna lose a lot of money. But frankly, who cares? It’s not Australia’s problem.
Gene Tunny 1:00:45
Yeah. Okay. So we’re gonna, how can we find more about your work? So I’ve got I do have listeners all around the world, but I do have a lot here in Australia. That’s probably in terms of any one country I’ve probably got the most from Australia, followed by The States. How can people learn more about what you’re doing and connect with you if they’re interested in having a further conversation?
Wingham Rowan 1:01:06
Gene Tunny 1:01:12
Okay, very good. Well, okay, so we can all get onto that. And yeah, I’ll, I’ll see what I’ll be certainly talking to people about this and sharing the episode, and we’ll see what comes of it. So that’s, that’s been terrific. So Wingham Rowan, thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed that conversation and, and learning more about your proposal, and I thought that was great. I thought we got into quite a lot of the tricky things I was always concerned about. So I really appreciate that. Thanks so much.
Wingham Rowan 1:01:45
Not at all, likewise.
Gene Tunny 1:01:48
Okay, that’s the end of this episode of Economics Explored. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, please tell your family and friends and leave a comment or give us a rating on your podcast app. If you have any comments, questions, suggestions, you can feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org And we’ll aim to address them in a future episode. Thanks for listening. Till next week, goodbye.
Thanks to Josh Crotts for mixing the episode and to the show’s sponsor, Gene’s consultancy business www.adepteconomics.com.au.
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