Dr Tanya Filer explores the emerging Govtech sector. As technological innovations to improve citizens' lives develop, she asks how should we be monitoring and governing this new sector where technology firms, government and society converge?
In November 2017 the UK Government announced the launch of its Govtech Catalyst Scheme. Underpinned by a £20 million fund, the initiative aims to encourage technology firms ‘to deliver innovative fixes to public sector challenges.’ It particularly seeks to encourage start-ups and SMEs, which have historically struggled to navigate government procurement processes and compete for contracts against large incumbent technology vendors. Alongside UK government, private investors, entrepreneurs, start-ups and consultancies have also begun to develop, invest in, and valuate the sector.
The emergence of the UK Govtech sector merits public attention because its technologies hold the potential to affect the broadest scope of public life. ‘Govtech’ describes digital and emerging technologies that help governments to provide public services and citizens to engage, through contact with the public sector, in communal life. The problems to which Govtech companies may respond are thus as varied as those that the public sector faces, from public transportation (eg. Citymapper) to welfare payments (eg. Govcoin).
As the Govtech sector grows, reflection is crucial on the role that we want digital and emerging technologies to play in fashioning relations between citizens, states and local governments. Considerations include accountability and data usage. What does the responsible usage of citizens’ data by private companies look like? Should data automatically be shared between government agencies? If so, which data and which agencies? Many groups and individuals should contribute to the debate, but central government has a crucial role to play. As Sheila Jasanoff writes, we should expect institutions engaged in technological uptake to prove themselves capable of ‘reflecting deeply enough on the ethics of invention.’
The Values of Govtech
The Govtech Catalyst Scheme is not the first attempt to digitise dimensions of the UK public sector. Following earlier attempts, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has pioneered digital public service provision since its establishment in 2011 and quickly earned a reputation as ‘the centre ground of public service reform.’ Its reforms manifest values including openness, accountability, saving public money and prioritising ‘user needs’. These values are both carefully documented and baked by design into in-house products such as gov.uk.
In contrast to GDS, the primary obligation of private sector enterprises, including Govtech firms, is to maximise private value for their owners or shareholders. When ensuring public value appears incompatible with that corporate obligation, it may go by the wayside unless (or even when) legally mandated.
Despite limited corporate obligation and a mantra of industry self-regulation emerging from technology firms, public pressure is mounting on tech giants to act more accountably in their public sector partnerships and on governments to enforce such accountability. A recent critique of the use of patient data by Streams, a Google Deepmind-NHS collaboration, for example, decries the absence of ‘strong tools’ to obligate private companies to ‘account in the same way as public institutions’ when aspiring to deliver public services.
Yet the focus on tech titans risks occluding deliberation on the standards to which we hold start-ups with high-growth potential working with the public sector. This absence is understandable—the societal stakes are (currently) lower, and policymakers fear stifling useful innovation—but short-termist, all the more so if government meets its target of awarding 33% of its spend to SMEs by 2020. It risks spawning a new generation of powerful tech companies, handling public life and citizen data from day one, that acts with scant accountability.
A Key Moment
The deliberate production of a UK Govtech sector provides an opportunity to proceed differently. Third sector efforts to ensure responsible technology development among start-ups are already underway. But government must assertively hold tech companies with which it elects to work, from the smallest up, to high ethical standards. One reason is so that government proves itself trustworthy in an age of institutional distrust. The failure of government to ensure accountability in its commercial relationship with Carillion only scuppered that process. Another reason is to create a trustworthy Govtech sector, given the powers it will hold.
What would good governance of the Govtech sector look like in practice? In the UK context, the many areas for exploration include:
- Making the newly announced Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation also inward-facing, guiding Govtech development and usage.
- Engaging regulatory sandboxes to facilitate useful Govtech experimentation, as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) does with Fintech.
- Developing anticipatory regulation.
- Considering the potential for design thinking to help formulate Govtech policy.
- Establishing an independent Govtech governance or advisory body.
- Exploring good governance alongside other countries, including D5 members, to help create an international community of shared values and to internationalise the UK Govtech market.
The Value of Govtech
Governing Govtech extends to responsible spending. The UK Govtech sector is estimated at £20 billion by 2025 (central government currently spends £49 billion on external contracts). The global Govtech sector is valued between £400 billion and over $1 trillion annually. These heady valuations suggest the potential for the sector to contribute to realising UK Industrial Strategy, which emphasises economic growth and productivity.
Yet, many of the ways in which technology can be usefully engaged to improve the public sector are cheap. Mike Bracken, the former government COO, has described how gov.uk ‘was built for less than the cost of running a traditional procurement process.’ Baroness Martha Lane Fox has commended GDS for revealing ‘what not to do: it saved us £4.1bn by not creating expensive and complicated apps and salvaging doomed projects like Universal Credit.’
World-class research and development, particularly surrounding government applications of new technologies, can be costly. But governments must be mindful when spending public funds that more money does not necessarily make for better public sector technologies. They must also eschew an investment thesis based on technological ‘solutionism’, or the erroneous technocratic belief that technology alone can solve complex social and political challenges.
How the UK Govtech sector is governed may be of global consequence. The Govtech Catalyst Scheme prioritises helping tech firms to internationalise. GDS, despite its differing agenda, has laid solid groundwork for these international designs: its pioneering work earned the UK an international reputation as a lodestar for public sector innovation. In my own research, I have seen how digital teams in Latin American governments admire and emulate the technological creativity of GDS and its commitment to openness. Similar attitudes abound elsewhere.
In an era of waning UK diplomatic influence, digital government has become a form of British soft power. The UK Govtech sector may amplify this reach and reputation. Its governance at home could influence, both by example and through technology transfer, whether these technologies assist citizens around the world in living more democratic lives.
Seeking Good Governance
The global Govtech sector is just emerging. Sound governance mechanisms, developed at an early stage, can help to enhance citizen-state relations, create a sustainable sector, mitigate the risk of harmful future outcomes and public backlash. In the UK, it can support the stated ambition of government to ‘lead by example’ on digital standards. But the window of opportunity is small. Technologies, particularly when cradled in supportive ecosystems, can develop quickly. Governing govtech risks fading into an afterthought.
This is why I am developing a project at the Bennett Institute on good governance mechanisms for Govtech: ones that prioritise democratic values and useful innovation that meets public needs. The project will be international and comparative in focus, including the UK. It will look beyond regulation alone, to consideration key questions of culture, ethics, markets and public value.