Big, Messy, Complicated: Why Governments Should Stop Fetishising Private-Sector Solutions
Governments are often held up to the rapid innovation standards of private sector companies, but face a different set of constraints - both budgetary and legislative. Is collaboration between the two the way forward?
The relative freedom that private companies have to pursue development of new product lines is not necessarily felt in the public sector. Integrating technological advancements into national infrastructure can be immensely expensive, and requires consideration of existing approval processes and levels of hierarchy.
The waters are muddied further when it comes to emerging platforms and their feasibility for GovTech adoption. There is debate over whether governments should aim to be innovators in this field, or should instead be fast-followers of private sector developments.
BDJ spoke to Faisal Hoque, founder of digital-solutions company Shadoka and author of several books including ‘Everything Connects – How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity’, an exploration of governmental innovation and its importance.
Innovation is Never Black and White, but Always Grey
When examining the need for public sector innovation, it would be easy to look at the situation as comprising of two distinct camps. You have those in favour of governments fully taking the reins when it comes to the development of their products and infrastructure, and those who believe it’s more prudent to simply follow the progress coming out of the private sector.
Hoque points out that the reality is quite different. “It's never a situation of a government either being a fast-follower or innovating by itself,” he says. “History tells us it is always some combination of the two. Look at the Internet as an example – [one of the places] it started out [was] in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US, then commercialisation happened in the private sector.”
That is not to say that governments are incapable of pursuing innovation. Hoque uses AI as an example, and notes how there are certain elements of the platform that are being actively researched and advanced that the private sector hasn’t seen yet – although they soon will. The issue with certain technological platforms and the ability for governments to quickly and easily develop them is their implications for existing legal frameworks.
“[Blockchain has] regulation and security issues that are associated with it, so governments have been very slow at updating the programs and policies that drive certain adaptations or improvements in the technology”
“If you look at something like blockchain,” Hoque says, “there are regulation and security issues that are associated with it, so governments have been very slow at updating the programs and policies that drive certain adaptations or improvements in the technology. They always are, unless it’s a question of national security. Then, it’s a whole different ball game.”
Hoque points out examples of this hierarchy in GovTech development priorities, ranging from citizen alerts through to offensive and defensive cybersecurity. In these areas, he says, the government is quite advanced. Clearly, there is no set policy that dictates the degree to which public sector innovation is allocated time and resources – the deciding factor is rather the importance given to its development by respective government departments.
Collaboration Between the Public and Private Sectors
The importance that is assigned to certain avenues of tech development can result in a third branch of GovTech implementation: the collaboration between governments and private companies.
There is, historically, a problem of digital development taking place in government silos, limiting the collaboration between different departments. However, the scope for governments and private companies to work together is immense, and has already seen successful results.
“The US government gave Tesla a great amount of fund infusion when it was in dire straits, so didn't the government play a role in Tesla successfully innovating an electric car?”
“Look at Tesla,” says Hoque. “You might ask, ‘What was the government role in Tesla?’ Well, it was the US government that gave Tesla a great amount of fund infusion when it was in dire straits, so didn't the government play a role in Tesla successfully innovating an electric car?”
However, this is not to say that such collaboration is a blueprint for how all GovTech development can proceed. While the deal between the government and Tesla was largely controversy free, the same cannot be said for Google’s recent history with government contracts. In June, the company announced that it would not be renewing its contract with the Pentagon, following a sizeable protest from employees of the search giant.
The reality of collaborative relationships between the public and private sectors for the purposes of tech development means that the continuation of these projects can be at the mercy of employee or shareholder opinion. Hoque points out that governments are very much open to the idea of public-private sector collaboration, but they are not a guaranteed certainty.
It is also important to remember that the driving forces behind the government’s desire for digital development can differ, which can affect how it seeks out collaborations from the private sector.
“There is think-tank-orientated collaboration,” says Hoque, “meaning people sitting there thinking, ‘What should be the next ____?’ and then there’s the ‘We need to solve this problem, so we need to bring in a bunch of very smart companies or people together to solve this problem’ kind of collaboration. Those are two very different ways of collaborating for innovation.”
There is No One Government That Leads the Way in Innovation
A lot of speculation and opinion has been generated about the speed and depth of digital innovation carried out by governments around the world. The needs of a country such as Denmark are obviously going to differ vastly from those of a country like China, but that does not stop the debate over who is leading the charge for innovative tech infrastructure and public-sector projects.
“If you look at Scandinavian countries or Canada, a certain portion of the government is very advanced in terms of its innovation. These indexes that we see, like who is the most innovative country, those are very simplistic views because it's not granular enough to say they're better at everything. Nobody is better at everything,” says Hoque.
The Innovation/Legislation Issue
Integrating emerging tech into a nation’s infrastructure can be a dangerous gamble, simply due to the unproven nature of the platforms. There can be unforeseen reliability matters, issues around scaling, and resultant unpredictable costs that can make budgeted resources quickly evaporate.
The debate surrounding governments’ need to innovate or fast-follow is also affected by another consequence of technological innovation: legislation. Implementing far-reaching technological programs necessitates regulation, and that is truer than ever at a national level.
“It’s very difficult to keep up because the arena is changing so dramatically, not just from a technology point of view, but also from the human behaviour perspective”
“It’s very difficult to keep up because the arena is changing so dramatically, not just from a technology point of view, but also from the human behaviour perspective,” says Hoque. “Just look at what’s happened with social media – it's hard to come up with legislation and proper guidance that doesn't infringe on people's freedom of speech and other rights.”
Interestingly, issues of legislation playing catch-up to technological innovation and its implementation can extend to the actual usage of the technology. Hoque points out that legislators are faced with the necessity of waiting to see how the tech develops through public adoption and integration.
In the end, the public may end up pushing the technology in a direction that was not originally intended. Because of the possibility of this happening, there is the conundrum of not knowing how long to wait before drafting legislation to cater for these new platforms. You can end up having to change already existing statutes, and dealing with any related legal precedent that has been established by them.
Public Calls for Innovation
The public’s demand for tech, as well as its exposure to it through private companies’ commercial products, is a driving force behind governments’ need to innovate. Hoque points out that it’s not necessarily via the demand for futuristic developments in robotics and AI that governments are going to experience fevered public demand for innovation. Instead, he notes examples such as security in ports, and the necessity of tracking cargo coming into them from a supply-chain perspective.
“These are all very basic cases for enablement and innovation, or whatever you want to call it. In those cases, it’s the government that has to take the lead. The public cannot do anything about it – they can scream about it, they can call up their legislators and say, ‘You need to fix this’, but ultimately, it’s the government that has to fix it,” Hoque says.
The public’s influence on GovTech development is an important aspect of the debate about innovation or fast-following for the public sector. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of what goes into such development at a national level can cloud public perception, and make people think their officials aren’t listening to their demands for a fully charted digital roadmap.
“People’s perception of the public sector is way too simplistic – it's never that simple. It's big, messy and complicated, and you have to come up with fair and balanced legislation”
“People’s perception of the public sector is way too simplistic – it's never that simple,” says Hoque. “It looks simple from the outside until you get in there. It's big, messy and complicated, and you have to come up with fair and balanced legislation, plus a way of collaborating with anybody innovating. For example, how do you choose what the best innovator is to work with the government? Even that process has to be fair and balanced.”
The Balance of Public and Private Innovation
Perhaps predictably, the matter of government innovation is not black and white. The tremendous variety of potential technological implementation at a public-sector level dictates that there is not a single set plan for adopting these platforms. While consideration of private-sector solutions has to be factored into the discussion, it’s key to not let this become a dominating influence. As Robyn Scott, CEO of Apolitical points out:
“While it’s also important that governments work more closely with the private sector to understand cutting-edge solutions, it should avoid fetishising private-sector solutions. Sometimes, digital innovations are best developed internally, and it’s important that a government cultivates its own digital talent.”
Launched in November 2017, the £20 million GovTech Fund in the UK was designed to better facilitate the collaboration between the public and private sectors. The GovTech Catalyst team issues challenges on areas of general public concern, ranging from prison healthcare, to tackling traffic and congestion using data and emerging technologies.
Private sector innovators then apply to the fund with their solutions. Winners receive £50,000 to develop their proposals, with a further £500,000 available for subsequent development and testing. Schemes like this are an innovative way of minimising the divide between public and private sector digital development, with a view to establish a culture of mutually beneficial productivity.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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