Technology is helping to transform government. This statement probably washes over you like a fine wintery mist, before evaporating into nothingness, because you’ve heard something similar so many times before. Every industry you can think of is being moulded by emerging technologies. That’s no groundbreaking admission. But GovTech, a fancy acronym for technological solutions provided to government by external innovators, is here to save the government from stagnation and shake up the services they provide.
“Everyone knows technology is transforming government - this is a well-worn adage,” muses Daniel Korski, Founder and CEO of PUBLIC, a venture capitalist firm focused on helping technology startups transform public services. “But it is now impossible to ignore or deny that the driving force of this transformation is small tech companies and startups.”
There are simply too many to ignore. PUBLIC put together a report, The European 150, to celebrate some of the 2,000 GovTech startups in Europe alone. To put that into cash money figures, spending on GovTech in Europe is €21.8bn; and that could grow five-times over in the years to come. From IoT smart road systems, to speech recognition software and agriculture mico-satellites, startups across the continent are supporting citizens where governments fall short.
“‘The European 150’ highlights the startups across Europe blazing a trail in the GovTech landscape,” Korski explains. “The report features fifteen European cities and ten GovTech startups within each that are set to transform the way the public sector in Europe operates.” Why? Because “More and more European nations are looking to ‘GovTech’ startups to solve their most pressing challenges - and more and more startups are surfacing to meet these requirements,” Korski added.
Of course, it’s naive to think that startups are a magic pill to fix systematic problems that are limiting public services. A successful startup needs funding, accessibility, time and a vision that puts people before profits or commercial interests.
That's a lot to consider. So let’s start with the basics.
GovTech primarily refers to a growing movement of startups looking to transform public services through technology. Increasingly, Korski adds, GovTech is being used as a by-word for a new era of government technology - one marked out by smart purchasing and procurement - a successor to ‘e-Government’ (a by-word for large incumbents supplying technology to government), and ‘Digital Government’ (governments creating tech in-house - GDS, for example).
Essentially, GovTech is important because public authorities are struggling to adapt. Citizen engagement, protecting information security and providing for an aging citizen base are just some of the challenges facing government bodies, Korski points out. “Most public authorities across Europe are faced with increasing budgetary pressure. All European countries now need to provide for an increasingly digitally savvy citizen base, for whom paper-based systems and days or weeks of waiting times just aren’t good enough.”
Korski believes GovTech holds a means to meet these challenges. How? Tech can help build cheaper, more user-friendly services for citizens, transforming everything from how individuals access healthcare to how courts simplify expensive and time-consuming paperwork.
With the NHS teetering on a knife edge above privatisation, government cuts are becoming the norm. Just last December, funding for public health services like sexual health clinics and mother and baby support was cut by £85m.
In order to support growing demand under austerity, doctor surgeries are offering appointments over the phone, and mental health waiting lists are quietly increasing. And yet, healthcare professionals often have to rely on archaic technologies that slow them down or lead to confusion.
“In just about any other profession it's easy to reach the person you need, when you need them,” Forward founder Phillip Mundy explains. “Healthcare is totally different, so we set out to build a messaging tool designed for doctors.”
Over 6,000 doctors and nurses are currently using the Forward app across over 100 UK hospitals. It's saving them on average 30-45 minutes a day, speeding up waiting times and allowing them more time with patients.
The effectiveness of the Forward app comes with its simplicity. When we praise tech, we tend to be attracted to the complex and mistake it for being innovative. Much like a moth is drawn to a flame. But sometimes, that's not necessary. Sometimes, the application of the tech is much more important. We all use a messaging app every day, but this relatively straightforward software could rejuvenate how doctors talk to each other. Without sounding too much like a anti-establishment campaign, successful GovTech relies on grassroot change and empowering people.
“In some ways, we showed that technology could be adopted by the people who felt the problem most acutely,” Mundy explained. “We proved that meaningful change doesn't have to come from the top down.”
Forward isn't the only startup pushing for grassroots change. Umbrellium CEO Usman Haque and Senior Designer Ling Tan have been experimenting with the idea of using wearable technology to tackle air pollution.
The pair have been workshopping with over 200 people across two years. They sent participants out with trackers into their local area, and told them to make specific gestures when they felt that the air was especially polluted, such as putting their hand up to their nose or covering their mouth. The wearables measured these movements. “So the humans are kind of the sensors themselves,” Hague suggests.
Hague and Tan would also take a calibrated air quality sensor out with them during these workshops, and combine that with geo-location tracking and a machine learning algorithm. Human perceptions are then compared to the machine data; to see if those gestures predict the value of the air quality sensor.
The results are promising. “In the proof of concept workshops, we could get a 75% accuracy without needing a digital sensor,” Hague confirmed. “We want to improve that, but firstly we want to show that you don’t need to wait for digital sensors to have an impact.”
It helps residents to feel powerful against something as vast and scary as pollution. But that’s not all. Humans can be more perceptive than a machine.
Consider London for a minute. A heavily populated city where greenery is shoved and slotted wherever it can fit; which is why you end up with parks appearing on roadside junctions. These areas of ‘uncertainty’ cause confusion in the air quality workshops.
“You know you are in a park but the road is so close by that you've lost perception of whether the air is bad or good. People don't trust their instincts because there is conflicting data about the environment,” Tan explained. However, it seems they should really start trusting their perceptions. “The air quality data from sensors is good, but when the people went out, they noticed things happening, such as a truck collecting rubbish or a car passing, that weren't captured by the sensor.”
Teaching residents to have a sense of agency is a worthy cause, but policy makers are the ones that can enact real change. Hague told me that this project can help local authorities to identify where sensors need to be installed.
“We have noticed that you can have a lot of areas of uncertainty even when you roll out a high density network,” he explained. “Councils are cash strapped; they don't want to spend money where they don't need to. We are trying to identify the uncertain areas so that sensors are deployed where they are most needed, and couple that with the behavior change. Which is what local authorities most want.”
Moving forward, the Umbrellium team are hoping to train more community partners to take on this toolkit and roll it out in their city or neighbourhood. “Not only Umbrellium can do this, anyone who is interested can do it in their own city, just by taking the tech and engagement methods,” Tan concluded.
That’s the crux of it. We need local authorities to show interest if GovTech startups are to be successful. This is where Robyn Scott and her work with Apolitical comes in; the startup that’s on a mission to make government work better for citizens everywhere. The peer-to-peer learning platform for public servants aims to bring 21st century tech and product know-how into government. “We aim to make it as easy to find the best policy solution as it is to find the best hotel room for your holiday,” Robyn explained. “Government has been neglected by tech innovators for too long.”
Governments aren’t just facing a tech drought and running low on funds, they are becoming less trusted, Scott argues. “This makes it harder to attract and retain the talent it urgently needs to adapt to emerging technologies and solve increasingly complex problems,” she continued.
The government may well control about 40% of the world’s GDP, but millennials tend to see startups as the best way to make an impact on society. With the Silicon Valley motto “move fast and break things” in mind, it's no wonder that startups, with their young hungry entrepreneurs, clever tech and big dreams, are the talisman for innovation when compared with notoriously slow moving government offices. “Bureaucratic procurement systems also make it hard for government to work with innovative startups offering more effective and citizen-centric technologies,” Scott added. This needs to change. But how? “Government needs to have a goldilocks level of in-house technical capacity - enough to do what’s necessary and to hold private sector contractors to account, but not so much that it ends up trying to do things that would be better done in more agile organisations,” Scott suggests.
She hopes that Apolitical can be the platform to make this happen. Just two years after launching, Apolitical is used by mayors, ministers and other public servants across 140 countries. The platform offers policy solutions spanning innovative refugee integration ideas through to how to think about ethical AI in public services.
As the UK faces such an uncertain political future, governments need to, simply put, take all the help they can get. This is not about startups taking up the slack; it’s essential that governments and startups collaborate, and exploit each others strengths to be as effective as possible.
In conclusion, PUBLIC founder Korski is adamant that European governments need to reform their approach to procurement if want to take on America and China and lead the way in GovTech. “This is not to be taken lightly- it will require overhaul and investment in certain areas,” Korski warns. “Achieve this, however, and the public sector has the opportunity to open up new markets and to provide easier means for startups to scale across the continent.”
Startups can head up the innovation, produce the flashy tech and top talent; then the government can finetune the strategy and implement it. But they both need to do what’s traditionally unthinkable in business; put people before profits.
If you would like to find out more about GovTech come along to our technology leaders Meetup on the 31st Jan: https://www.meetup.com/Tech-Talks-Live/events/256650598/
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