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Luxembourg taps into innovation for better government tech

With a diverse population and a digital inclusion and open innovation strategy, Luxembourg has developed a way of using technology to improve government services

In Luxembourg, government technology (govtech) is defined as technology that improves government services by facilitating collaboration among ministries – and by making it easier for citizens and businesses to interact with public administrations.

Computer Weekly spoke with some of the people responsible for developing govtech solutions in Luxembourg – from the Ministry for Digitalisation and the Government IT Centre (CTIE). 

“The Ministry for Digitalisation was created in December 2018 with the goal of making peoples’ lives easier through digital technology,” says Vera Soares, government adviser at the Ministry for Digitalisation and member of the Cabinet. “When the Ministry for Digitalisation started, we immediately began working with the CTIE on concrete projects.” 

Luxembourg has had an IT centre since the 1970s, and in 2008 it became the CTIE which responsible for providing most of the IT services needed by ministries and administrations. It is responsible for the operation of the state-owned network and information security, supply the ministries and administrations with computers and phones and provide hosting services, software as a service, and platform as a service. It also develops applications. The CTIE is the biggest shared service centre for IT services in Luxembourg’s government. 

“Govtech is our core business,” says Patrick Houtsch, director of the CTIE. “One of the most recent projects was in 2019 when we launched a public sector blockchain, which is a very innovative govtech solution. It’s a big success because not only did we provide the blockchain, but we have also provided solutions that operate on the blockchain.” 

“One of the solutions was for processing student loans,” says Houtsch. “A bank can verify that a student has been granted a guarantee from the State and that they have not yet used this guarantee at another bank. This kind of thing is govtech that we do as daily business. But we now have a dedicated lab, which gives us better access to innovative ideas and facilitates our exchange with experts from the private sector.” 

The GovTech Lab, as it is known, was launched virtually on November 20, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. It has evolved since and now has a physical space. 

The GovTech Lab provides access to leading edge technology 

“The Ministry for Digitalisation and the CTIE work together to improve services through govtech – and the GovTech Lab is an important part of our work,” says Christine Zoller, member of the Ministry for Digitalisation in charge of the lab. “We can rely on an IT sector that is very well developed and a government that has a lot of experience running IT projects.” 

“We created the GovTech Lab to build and enhance more govtech solutions for the three key players: public administrations, citizens and businesses,” says Luis Carvalho Da Silva, member of the CTIE in charge of the GovTech Lab. “The solutions we promote now are to meet national needs, but they are designed to be interoperable at the European level.” 

The lab has three missions. The first is to accelerate innovation in the public sector by contributing to the transformation of public services – it does this by identifying challenges and launching calls for solutions. The challenges are concerns that public entities might have and that might be solved by innovative solutions, including digital technology. Once one or more challenges are identified, a call for solutions is launched. 

There are two processes for doing this. For projects where innovative solutions are needed, an innovation partnership is used, which involves a new public procurement process that allows for more flexibility in the whole process of selection. The lab tries to collaborate with external actors, which could be startups, researchers, freelancers, businesses or students.

This is an iterative process to work out the details of the solution through different phases: the proof of concept phase and the pilot project phase. At the end of these phases, a candidate is selected by a jury composed of two fixed members (Vera Soares and Patrick Houtsch) and variable members – civil servants or external experts. 

For smaller projects where a fast interaction with external experts is needed, the GovTech Lab launches a SpeedUP. This is mainly used for small pilot projects or expert analysis or reviews. 

The second mission of the GovTech Lab is to create a govtech community through dedicated events. This endeavour is supported by the physical space of the lab located in the CTIE building, where many events have already taken place since its opening in March 2022. 

It also networks with external actors, doing things such as hackathons, designathons, co-creative sessions and thematic conferences, where it invites different actors from the ecosystem to come to the GovTech Labs to discuss new trends, share experiences or simply co-create on a specific topic. Everybody can share ideas to find better ways of helping with the digital transformation of the state. 

The third mission is to become the reference place for state officials to go to when they’re interested in digital technologies and to use a more co-creative and agile approach when it comes to designing new applications for the public sector.

“We really try to foster the exchange...with the different administrations and ministries so they can more easily share their input and expertise ,” says Zoller. 

So far, the GovTech Lab has launched three innovation projects: Bye Bye RobotsTrust My Data and Virtual Meeting Room.

Bye Bye Robots is a new captcha solution to secure forms on the internet, so they aren’t overloaded by robot requests.

Trust My Data is a platform that issues official digital certificates that can be stored in the form of either credentials or digital certificates in an e-wallet and that can be verified by anyone.

Virtual Meeting Room intends to offer the possibility to citizens to meet the public agent in charge of their inquiry via an online video-conferencing tool which will be integrated in the one-stop portal called MyGuichet.lu. 

Government developed solutions versus startup solutions 

“We have always developed govtech through the CTIE and will continued to do so,” says Soares. “The GovTech Lab is complementary and tries to push innovation and new digital solutions in public services. The approach is different. We are trying to integrate new actors into the ecosystem – including startups, universities and students.” 

Bye Bye Robots was the first challenge the GovTech Lab launched. For Houtsch, it was a big success because it allowed them to verify their new approach to finding solution.  

“We launched the call for solutions, and a big list of applicants came and proposed their solutions,” says Houtsch. “We saw very different approaches that we were able to choose from. There were some very innovative solutions, and we were able to do things in a way that probably would not have been possible if we had gone through the traditional approach of issuing a tender.” 

The experience with Trust My Data was similar. The GovTech Lab launched the challenge and got a lot of applicants with different solutions, then went into the details of all the proposed solutions and picked one. Today, GovTech Lab is running a pilot project with the company. 

“We now see that the concept of the works very well,” says Houtsch. “A much broader range of solutions using different technologies is presented to us to solve a given challenge.” 

The lab has the added benefit of giving new solution providers a chance to work with the government. It’s not easy for startups to participate in national tenders because they sometimes ask for experience or for a list of national programmes already done with the government. 

To kickstart the process, the GovTech Lab gives startups a chance to do a pilot project. It also gives universities and freelance workers a chance to participate in the digitisation of public services. 

“Developing a startup ecosystem is not the number one priority for our ministry,” says Soares. “That’s more of a priority for the Ministry of the Economy together with Luxinnovation, the innovation agency in Luxembourg. On the other hand, we do make it easier for startups to offer their know-how and IT solutions to accelerate the digitisation of public services.” 

A small country attuned to a diverse demography 

Part of the new approach to govtech is to ask citizens their opinions and to integrate them in the co-creation process. The Ministry for Digitalisation set up a participatory platform called Zesumme Vereinfachen (Luxembourgish for “Simplify together”), to solicit feedback from citizens on new apps for example and to make suggestions in general. The goal of Zesumme Vereinfachen is to develop public services that make citizens daily life easier by asking them to contribute to the administrative simplification. 

GovTech solutions have to reach out to people with a variety of cultural backgrounds – people from around 170 different nationalities live in Luxembourg. There are also three administrative languages: French, German, and Luxembourgish. English is widely spoken in Luxembourg. 

Govtech also consider people with special needs.  “The Ministry for Digitalisation defined strategic pillars, with one of the main pillars being digital inclusion,” says Soares. “We have a small team working on that, and in 2021 we launched a national digital inclusion plan with 40 initiatives, from all the different ministries. Eighteen initiatives were from the Ministry for Digitalisation.

“One of our concerns is how to integrate people who want to become digital but aren’t yet, so we take into account different cultural backgrounds, people with disabilities, older people, and so on.”  

As for people who aren’t interested in adopting digital technology, the government has a rule that all administrative procedures must be offered on paper.  

The future of GovTech 

“One thing that will happen in the next five years is a mind shift towards going to the market to look for solutions,” says Da Silva. “We are already doing it in the CTIE, but it will also happen for the public sector in general.

“It’s not always easy to figure out how new technologies can help. Many people are reluctant to try a new solution when they don’t know the technology it’s based on. As more government agencies demonstrate the advantage of going to market, I expect this attitude to change.” 

Houtsch adds: “It’s a mind shift in the direction of being more open minded. We look at a broader range of alternatives and we try not to jump on the first solution that appeals to us. Our new approach is to look at a lot of different solutions and to be prepared to adopt new technologies faster.”  

Houtsch says: “The GovTech Lab helps us to get in contact much earlier with new technologies. For example, we started using blockchain technology before founding the GovTech Lab. It was a big effort for us to dig into it and understand the advantages and the stumbling blocks – and to figure out where it can be used. The GovTech Lab will help us do that in the future.” 

Soares adds: “We are getting more and more into the role of personalised service provider. This is one thing that is coming with digitisation. Citizens need public services that are more accessible, more personalised to their needs. And I think that the way forward is to become more pro-active in this sense.

“The government should be able to predict needs based on the individual situations. GovTech should make it easier – and less time consuming – for citizens to benefit from services.”  

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