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Collaboration is key to rapid adoption of govtech across Europe

Government technology is spreading across Europe, but policy-makers and senior civil servants are still figuring out best practices

Inter-government collaboration and private-public partnerships are the best ways for European governments to advance the adoption of emerging digital technologies, according to experts.

Delegates at the GovTech Summit 2019 in Paris on 14 November heard proposals about how these collaborations could work going forward, including the need for a civil service culture change, the use of regulatory sandboxes, and the creation of concrete key performance indicators (KPIs) to effectively measure the effects and progress of government digitisation.

“Last year, when we organised [the summit] for first time, I think we put govtech on the map, and we showed that senior-level politicians and officials were interested in what startups could bring to government,” Daniel Korski, co-founder and CEO of Public, told Computer Weekly.

“I think what we did this year was to show that this isn’t just sexy and new, it’s substantive and serious, and I think the breadth of conversations and the depth of engagement, by startups, officials and investors, show that this is a phenomenon that’s promising to deliver genuine change.”

However, the consensus at the summit was that the largest remaining barrier was citizens’ lack of trust, both in governments themselves and their private sector partners.

Speaking in a panel discussion about the risks and opportunities of government use of artificial intelligence, Jo Deblaere, chief operating officer and group chief executive, Europe at Accenture, said the continent had lost the battle for B2C (business to consumer) technology.

“We don’t have any Google, we don’t have any Facebook. Nine out of the top 10 [tech] companies worldwide are non-European,” he said, referring to the domination of the global tech industry by China and the US.

Speaking on the same panel, Norway’s minister of digitisation, Nikolai Astrup, said that although “we didn’t really participate in the battle at all”, there is still huge potential in Europe for business-to-business and business-to-government technology. 

“The public sector in the US is far behind the public sector in Europe when it comes to making use of new technology,” he said.

“We already have a flourishing startup community around Europe, so I think using public purchasing power, which is enormous because we have big welfare states, to promote green innovation and a digital public sector is going to be key.”

Despite the huge purchasing power of many European states, government innovation processes, as well as those of large corporate entities, can often be cumbersome and slow-moving. As an alternative, many panellists highlighted the importance of startups to the spread of govtech across Europe, mainly because of their agility and problem-solving ability.

“We are in a world with increasing disruption, uncertainty and scarcity,” said Alexander Holt, head of the Scottish government’s CivTech programme, which works to bring private sector expertise into the public sector. “For public servants, that’s a very tricky place to be, but who are the people that thrive in that environment? It’s entrepreneurs.”

Changing the mindset of government

Holt said startups’ ability to not only cope, but thrive off and adapt to uncertainty could go a long way to changing the mindsets of civil servants and government bodies dealing with digital transformation projects.

“It’s moving from a conventional value extraction mentality to one which is about value creation,” he said. “So it’s about the sense of creating public value in partnerships, and that needs different mindsets and different models.”

This was corroborated by Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić, who said startups bring a competitive advantage because they “are offering solutions to problems that you didn’t even know you had”.

Speaking on a panel about how to create the right conditions for govtech adoption, Brnabić said that, because of a lack of technological expertise, governments simply do not tender for the right systems.

“To me, procurement needs to rely much more on an open data policy, because companies will be able to look at the things that are important to them and say: hey, did you know that you could do this much more efficiently?” she said.

However, Faruk Tuncer, founder of smart governance platform Polyteia, said that while startups should play a bigger part in the digital transformation story, governments need to think carefully about the circumstances in which to deploy them.

“We can bring flexibility, agility and cost-effectiveness,” he said, “but I would say that government should have a standpoint of where to develop and keep their own services, where to use big IT companies, and where to use medium-size companies.”

Speaking on the same panel, Greece’s digital minister, Kyriakos Pierrakakis, said that while many European countries are already acting as govtech “innovation laboratories”, there need to be better lines of communication between them if the pace of adoption is going to increase across the continent.

“What we need is to establish the bridges of learning from one another in proper fashion – in a direct and fast fashion – that we haven’t yet done,” he said. “It’s happened quite ad-hoc.

“One idea would be to learn from one another, with one particular failure and one particular success in the context of a specific conference. This would have allowed us to get up to speed and quickly adopt best practices from other [EU] member states.”

Best government practice

Addressing the role that governments should play in these potential partnerships, Rune Simensen, director of technology and e-health for the South-Eastern Norwegian Regional Health Authority, said they need to set more concrete KPIs to push collaborative innovation forward.

“We don’t want to be in an environment where innovators or startups are building products that nobody wants,” he said. “Putting boundaries on what to develop would really help.”

Holt added that the performance of civil servants should be assessed differently, with a greater focus on outcomes over outputs, to eliminate the fear of failure, which he said was not conducive to an adaptable, innovation-focused mindset.

This was echoed by Hinrich Thoelken, an ambassador in Germany’s Federal Foreign Office and a special representative for international digitisation policy and digital transformation. “We should praise people who are courageous enough to take risks and willing to make mistakes,” he said, because that experience of failure is fed back into the working culture, producing better results.

Thoelken said civil servants and government bodies must undergo this change if these partnerships with private companies are to work.

“If you put an entrepreneurial, founder spirit into an administrative system, it will not work – he or she will turn into a public servant,” he said. “We have different KPIs, different targets and different mission briefs, so we need to also start changing the rules to be able to play by a different rule book.”

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Thoelken said there are two approaches to working on digital transformation or govtech projects – incremental or disruptive – but that “the forces of inertia are so strong that you cannot overcome them”.

He added: “I am doubtful that incremental changes would work. I believe that we need disruptive zones where people are invited to experiment, are encouraged actually to take risks, and to try something new.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Public’s Korski said culture change is really about the education of senior civil servants, who need to understand tech-related issues better in order to disseminate a less risk-averse, more innovation-ready mindset.

“There are many senior people who have little experience with digital, don’t really understand the startup culture, and worry about ridiculous amounts of money,” he said. “The young people are more technologically proficient anyway, they’re not going to fail unless they feel they’re going to be sanctioned, and they won’t be sanctioned if the higher-ups understand what they’re dealing with.”

In short, said Korski, “senior officials need to communicate a willingness to try things”.

But regardless of whether this culture shift can occur within civil services, the general public still may not have trust in either the government of the day, or the private company it has chosen to partner with.

Trust as a barrier to govtech adoption

The issue of trust in private-public partnerships came into focus most sharply during a panel debate on transforming healthcare through technology, when chair Juliet Bauer, NHS England’s former chief digital officer and managing director at Livi UK, asked: “Can people trust tech?”

In response, Ida Tin, co-founder and CEO of female health app Clue, said both governments and the companies they partner with need to focus on how to build ethical businesses around data.

“There are good reasons why people don’t trust tech, because we have, for instance, a whole app economy built on the premise that users don’t understand how businesses make money,” she said. “If they did, they wouldn’t actually want to use the product.

“It comes back to the question: what do we invest in? What does venture capital care about? As long as you have a venture capital system that pretty much only cares about revenue, you’re going to have this misalignment on how you view products, and that’s particularly important in health where you really have to be able to trust the tech companies.”

To help build this trust, Norwegian minister Astrup floated the idea of regulatory sandboxes, whereby governments can cautiously test new technologies “before they unleash it on the rest of society”.

“So for instance, in Norway, we have a regulatory sandbox for autonomous vehicles in traffic, and we also have a sandbox for autonomous ships where we have allocated a fjord,” said Astrup. “Finding out whether or not it works is necessary to build trust.”

The need to build trust in any public-private partnerships was also highlighted by the Digital Government Barometer 2019, in which Sopra Steria and Ipsos Mori partnered to conduct market research on the digitisation of public services in six European countries.

According to Claire Ducos, head of business development at Sopra Steria, who presented the findings during a panel on building inclusive digital services, the research has three main takeaways for governments attempting to build digital services.

“Europeans want more simplicity and quality of digital public services as opposed to quantity, and assistance and human contact is necessary regardless of the channel,” she said.

“Thirdly, the ethical dimension must be a priority of all governments because it is key to building the confidence and trust necessary for digital inclusion.”

Ducos suggested all governments should create new departments to deal with citizens’ concerns and their relationship with the state, so that trust can be built into any new technology deployments.

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