When was the last time you bought something online, and how long did it take you? The chances are you’ve already used the Internet numerous times today, to buy something, find information, connect with someone, or access content of some kind. More likely than not, the experience was quick and easy. Web services are designed to help customers find and access the thing they want in a matter of seconds.
Now think of the last time you needed to find information or use a service provided by the government. All too often, the contrast is stark: answers are hard to find; you might be asked to provide hard-to-find information (maybe in paper form); or there can be a long wait between requesting and getting the thing you want, whether that’s a passport, or an appointment with your GP.
In most cases, governments have a very long way to go to live up to the experience people are used to online. What’s more, in a context where many countries are grappling with highly divisive debates of one kind and another, it’s hard to see government digital transformation getting the attention and political weight it deserves.
However, despite all the obstacles and distractions, there is a diverse and growing community dedicated to updating government and public services. The Paris GovTech Summit brings together officials hauling governments into the 21st century with tech businesses that are providing solutions to support them. TBI’s Tech and Public Policy team attended the Summit and came away with 5 reasons to be optimistic about this agenda:
A rich conversation
The GovTech Summit attracted over 1500 attendees from a wide range of sectors. Government officials and tech entrepreneurs featured heavily of course, but there were also politicians, lawyers, investors, consultants, academics and third sector workers, as well as some of the big tech corporates. It added up to a feeling that the goal of fundamental digital transformation for governments has gained wide acceptance and interest. While the GovTech Summit is one of the biggest, there’s also a wealth of other events focusing on government innovation and transformation, with organisations like NESTA helping to drive the conversation in the UK.
Real-life success stories
Maybe the most exciting part of the GovTech Summit was the opportunity to hear examples of how administrations are already using digital solutions to make peoples’ lives easier. During an interview (with me!), the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, talked about how parents no longer need to apply for child benefits when a new baby arrives – the social security system will be notified of the birth and update their entitlements automatically. (The idea of more spontaneous, personalised public services is also being looked at by the UK’s Government Digital Service – at their 2019 Sprint we heard about their project to provided more tailored advice to individuals to point them towards services that might be relevant to them.)
We met the founders of Mind of My Own, a start-up launched by former British social workers whose technology helps children communicate privately with a trusted adult so they have a confidential route to signal any well-being concerns, and is increasingly being picked up by schools and local authorities. And during a panel chaired by Chris Yiu, Executive Director of the Tech & Public Policy team here at the Institute, we heard how the provincial government of British Columbia has put in place a digital ID function that allows citizens to access a whole portfolio of public and private services via their drivers’ licence. These kinds of service improvements can help to demonstrate to citizens that governments are responding to their needs, starting a virtuous cycle of trust and engagement.
A sense of momentum and an evolving relationship between government and business
In the opening session of the Summit, participants were asked how they would rate the development of the govtech sector out of ten. The consensus landed at around 6, with the conversation highlighting a feeling that there is a critical mass of people, organisations and sectors engaged in delivering digital transformation; but that there’s plenty of potential to go further. Speaking to people at the Summit also showed there is a gradual evolution underway in the relationship between the public and private sectors. We met speakers who had moved from government to the private sector; and vice versa, and heard about new models of procurement and collaboration that are helping to bridge the chasm between public and private, helping to modernise culture, pass on best practice and promote better mutual understanding of their respective contexts.
Actors from all levels of government
To make really radical, lasting changes to how government works, a strong political commitment is needed. Digital government should be a top priority for ministers. But even when top-level politicians’ attention is elsewhere, it’s still possible to make meaningful progress. Local authorities were prominent at both GovTech and the NESTA Government Innovation Summit; they are increasingly making use of their competences and their data – like the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s data analytics dashboard, which helps compare and improve individual wards on a wide range of metrics. Local governments are also increasingly making use of participative democracy platforms that help provide valuable insights into citizens’ views and give them real influence in shaping policy and services (such as Cap Collectif, which helped the French city of Rennes run a participatory budget of 5% of its investment budget).
Increasing international involvement
If any more evidence were required that digital transformation in government is an established policy discipline and an urgent priority, a number of international institutions are now making it a key area of focus. A combination of tight budgets, bureaucratic structures and politically delicate decision-making can mean that international organisations are not always the most nimble; so it’s significant that the EU and the OECD are both increasingly active on digital transformation. The former has a well-established eGovernment benchmarking system; the latter runs regular country reviews, and sponsors an e-Leaders forum to promote faster exchange of best practice, as well as contributing valuable data and toolkits for governments.
Asked what factors were crucial in driving to Estonia’s success at developing a sophisticated digital government, President Kaljulaid didn’t set out a wishlist of favourable conditions that need to be in place. Instead she mentioned absences: a shortage of budget to design and deliver public services that forced officials’ hands when it came to involving outside actors and building in efficiency; and a lack of established expertise, which meant there were no constraints on imagination or ambition – the government just didn’t realise it couldn’t be as effective or as open as the private sector.
All this should be encouraging for anyone involved in govtech and digital government. There is a lot to do to deliver the fundamental reforms that will establish effective government and social structures for a world that is changing ever more rapidly. The next generation of political leaders need to overcome the political distractions of the moment and build on the momentum that has been generated so far to really achieve this. But in the meantime, actors in and out of government are making incremental improvements that can and will contribute to positive change.
If you’d like to read more about the Tech and Public Policy team’s work in this space, you can read our report, Transforming Government for the 21st Century, here. And if you’re interested or already involved in the process of government modernisation and you’d like to discuss these issues with us then please get in touch – email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter: @Andrewjb_ and @kmei_.