The rapid development of private sector technology is an area that often doesn’t readily translate into public sector tech procurement. Thanks to rigid governmental IT regulations and a lack of cooperation between official departments, GovTech is not as fast moving as the numerous innovations and product rollouts that consumers are used to on the open market.
It is not a question of if governments actively pursuing and investing in technology is a good idea or not, but how they approach it. The matter of GovTech R&D divides opinion for many. The need for there to be a public sector infrastructure of essential tech platforms is clear, but the definition of essential here is subjective.
Estonia is Leading the Way
Blockchain’s stratospheric rise in recent years is just one example of how governments are faced with tough decisions when it comes to technology’s viability for their national infrastructures. Such technologies are experiencing huge growth and well-funded research, but their rapid development and lack of an established history have made their adoption into the public sphere an issue of some debate.
A recent notable example was the talk of Estonia adopting its own national cryptocurrency, dubbed the ‘Estcoin.’ When officials announced the project, there was a great deal of excitement in the blockchain community, with many seeing this as a potential catalyst for other nations to start devoting serious resources to R&D for their own national blockchain infrastructures.
However, the plans faced staunch criticism from the European Central Bank, which noted a great deal of confusion in reports as to where the plans for the Estcoin had come from. The plans for the blockchain platform have been scaled back, and are now directly targeted at Estonia’s e-Residents.
Although an unusual example, this reflects the nature of confusion and overlapping bureaucratic jurisdictions that GovTech development often faces. BDJ spoke to Robyn Scott, co-founder and CEO of Apolitical, on the challenges that face GovTech’s development, and what governments can do to ensure that their plans are scalable and ethical.
Don’t Find a Solution Without Having a Problem to Solve First
As previously noted, emerging tech platforms like blockchain, AI and VR have the ability to generate a great deal of hype. However, it is essential for GovTech development to act in a way that generates a lasting framework to benefit public services and utilities.
When asked which tech areas should be a priority for governmental development, Robyn observes that there isn’t necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ approach for identifying a tech area requiring prioritisation.
“It’s important initially to be solution-agnostic to avoid putting too much effort into a trendy technology like blockchain, which has powerful applications but is not always the best solution.”
“I think the better question to ask is: ‘what problems are a priority for government?’” Robyn says. “It’s important initially to be solution-agnostic to avoid putting too much effort into a trendy technology like blockchain, which has powerful applications but is not always the best solution.”
This resonates with the matter of the Estcoin, and the excitement generated by its initial announcement. Clearly, a platform’s suitability for GovTech development isn’t dependent on existing public adoption, but must be measured against the various levels of existing infrastructure and legal frameworks.
However, Robyn goes on to target a specific area that GovTech will likely focus on in the coming years: “That said, given its breadth of applications, AI is going to be a critical area. I think there’s a particular opportunity for government to get better at utilising the many open-source machine learning frameworks and tools now available.”
A Matter of Funding
These tools are in place largely thanks to the amount of private sector activity that is pouring funding and research into areas like AI. A large portion of the debate surrounding GovTech development is directed towards the extent to which the public sector should collaborate with private companies. Robyn believes that currently there is not sufficient cooperation in this respect:
“I think government needs to get closer to innovative companies to understand the latest solutions available on the market. Procurement processes and the management and delivery of contracts need to become friendlier towards smaller companies, who operate in more agile and iterative ways.”
“Governments need to embrace ‘responsible procurement’, using their huge procurement budgets to incentivise better behaviour in vendors that align with policy goals – whether it’s slavery and pollution-free supply chains, or job creation.”
Governments are, however, not in a position to demonstrate free rein when it comes to establishing collaborations with private entities. While a company may have promising research, there are public policy considerations which come into play. Is that company based in a country undergoing some form of tariff or trade sanctions? Are there other underlying factors that may make bringing them into GovTech development unfeasible?
“Governments need to embrace ‘responsible procurement’, using their huge procurement budgets to incentivise better behaviour in vendors that align with policy goals – whether it’s slavery and pollution-free supply chains, or job creation,” says Robyn.
This highlights a crucial factor in the development of GovTech programs – trust. In a way, governments are much like publicly-traded companies in the private sector. In place of shareholders demanding prudent business plans and avenues of product development, governments have their citizens/constituents.
With the amount of public funds that must be dedicated to tech research and development, these cannot be overly speculative flights of fancy on the government’s part. The public must have confidence in the development of new infrastructure. “People often talk about tech as the platform, but trust is the original platform that enables tech,” Robyn notes.
How Governments Around the World Stack Up
The UK government has taken a measured approach to the issue. Launched in November 2017, the £20 million GovTech Fund issues challenges focusing on public sector problems that private sector innovators can apply to solve. So far, 51 challenges have been issued by a variety of national and local official bodies, and include issues like the tracking of waste using emerging technologies, and improving the prescribing pathway in prison healthcare.
“The UK government… [launched] the £20 million GovTech Fund issues challenges focusing on public sector problems that private sector innovators can apply to solve.”
“I think it’s a helpful step,” Robyn says. “It signals the government's interest in GovTech to the market. And while it’s too small to transform the government, it will hopefully support some demonstrably valuable applications of GovTech that will spur more demand across government departments.
“If it results in faster sales cycles for SMEs selling to government, it could also help unlock urgently needed venture capital. Currently VCs are wary of the sector because of the risk of slow sales cycles into government.”
Robyn goes on to point out that the UK is still considered one of the best digital governments. The GovTech fund is the first of its kind, but there are other governments around the world who are increasingly launching their own initiatives to bring GovTech development not only into the public sphere, but also to produce tangible results. Robyn gives us some examples:
The US, under President Obama, was better at attracting tech talent through programs like 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows.
The ‘Startup in Residence’ program begun in Amsterdam and now spreading around the world has brought startups into governments to work alongside public officials and end users with great success.
Estonia is the leader in efficient and integrated digital government services, notably insisting that departments can’t repeatedly request the same data from citizens.
India’s Aadhaar system has given digital IDs to all citizens, increasing the access to and efficiency of government services.
New Zealand has recently experimented with making all of its legislation machine readable, which would enable public officials to model the effect of legislative changes and make it easier for private sector companies to interact with government.
The Challenges in GovTech’s Proliferation
Emerging tech has the ability to generate a great deal of excitement when considered at a consumer level. However, the adoption of this tech by governments necessitates certain legal and ethical considerations that are a natural by-product of precedent-free platforms being implemented at a national level.
As AI development continues, and its products become more complex and capable, so the scope for its potential applications increases. Potential AI implementation in the public sector may involve mass integration of citizens’ data, and, as such, the question of data protection will likely be a key area of public scrutiny.
Public data must be protected while maintaining its utility, but when it comes to the use of AI, the concerns surrounding the use of data do not stop there. Robyn also notes that the prevention of algorithmic bias is an important consideration when advocating the adoption of AI into GovTech development.
There is also the matter of legislation brought in to govern the ever-expanding reach of public sector technology. If legislation cannot be agile enough to keep up with innovation, serious complications may arise.
One only has to look at the UK Communications Act 2003. Brought in to replace the Telecommunications Act 1984, largely thanks to the rapid onset of mobile and internet infrastructure and usage, many have been been vocal in their criticism of this newer legislation, saying there are numerous loopholes and grey areas.
Another key area of consideration that Robyn points out is the tendency of governments to work in silos. The flexibility of emerging tech platforms like blockchain and AI gives scope for such platforms to be used in a variety of applications across numerous public sector areas.
The danger of digital falling into similar silos will undoubtedly slow down development, as well as squander public funds and resources that could have been shared in a more collaborative ecosystem.
The Roadmap to GovTech
GovTech development continues to be one of the most exciting aspects of public sector infrastructure investment. With the amount of public interest generated from the private sector, and the grand scale of resources that these companies have to research, develop and release cutting-edge products, it is easy to see how this could incentivise similar development in the public sector. Indeed, there is even scope for collaboration between public and private entities.
“While it’s important that government works more closely with the private sector to understand cutting-edge solutions, government should avoid being in awe of private sector solutions.”
“While it’s important that government works more closely with the private sector to understand cutting-edge solutions, government should avoid being in awe of private sector solutions,” says Robyn. The act of tempering emerging tech excitement against the logistics of measured public sector infrastructure development is an essential measure to get right.
Many governments across the world have experienced embarrassing (and expensive) missteps when it comes to the rapid adoption of emerging technologies. In 2014, for example, the UK government outsourced an IT scheme designed to integrate the Department for Transport’s human resources and financial services into one.
The move was sold on the basis that it would save the taxpayer £57 million, but this was overwhelmingly wrong. The scheme resulted in a loss to the taxpayer of £81 million, largely down to the ineptitude of those putting it together, which the Public Accounts Committee described as a display of “stupendous incompetence”. Let’s just hope those in charge of blockchain integration have a better handle on things.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]