(for this introduction, please imagine a teleshopping ad context. Black and white images with apps of the Romanian state that don’t really work followed by frustrated users whose app has been blocked and cannot make payments. All very frustrating, and the copy would sound something like this
ROeID – an application intended to create a digital identity for us. Which is actually just one of the other national and European attempts to think of an „electronic” identity. The application has been recently launched – fanfare and trumpets, you know. With an video and audio identity check, all very nice. But it didn’t work, and my social media bubble was full of people whose identity checks were refused. Even if you manage to create an identity, you can’t really do anything with it. Yet.
The e-Romania portal (remember that?), the portal of „participatory democracy”, was supposed to bring everything together, from information about all the country’s localities to electronic public services. Fast-forward, 10 years later, the portal no longer exists, the money is gone.
I think I can fill whole pages with such examples of applications, programs, services, developed by or for the Romanian state, but that would not solve anything, except frustrate us by reminding us of the long line of failures. But let’s not forget that teleshopping always goes from black and white images to colorful ones and happy people. On the system: But wait, there’s got to be a better way! Yes, that’s right, and it’s called GovTech.
What is this all about?
- I will paint an alternative portrait of the possibility of creating/improving digital public services offered to us as citizens through the GovTech sector.
- I will describe some GovTech mechanisms that are currently working in Europe.
- And, inevitably, I will address the possibility that these mechanisms exist/will be developed in Romania.
How does it help you?
- you need to know that there are also variants of cooperation between the private and public sectors for public digital services that do NOT involve the development of a costly and extremely unfriendly application with citizens
- there is room for involvement from citizens or small businesses if there is openness from the state.
- it helps you to ask for something different from those who lead/want to lead us (naive, I know).
So let’s get started.
How does the state implement digital public services?
Let’s go back to the teleshopping image. What causes all those black and white images of angry and frustrated people with the services? Well, some poorly designed and executed products, based on too much trust in the ability to deliver things. Or the rush that, as we know, ruins things. Or, let’s not forget the Romanian case, the intention to spend a lot of money without responsibility and without a satisfactory result.
If we go back to theory, there are several „philosophies” related to how to create and deliver public services:
- Classical governance – the state knows everything, does everything. So, the state is a large, bureaucratic apparatus and a consumer of resources.
- New public management – the state is too big, it needs to be reorganized, it consumes too many resources, we need to introduce principles from the private sector into the functioning of the public sector, reduce costs, the private sector knows better. Technology here is the means to lower costs at any price.
- Digital governance – which we have written about here before – it’s good to have a smaller state, with outsourcing to other private entities, but others should also participate in the creation and implementation of public services, and let’s not forget that technology is a tool for the benefit of citizens, and they should be involved in creating public policies.
It may be reductionist for those who have a more thorough knowledge of the phenomena, but it’s good for an overview of the possibilities to respond to challenges related to how the state provides digital public services.
The downsides of the first two approaches are clear – the state doesn’t always know everything or can do everything (especially if the resources it needs have been diminished under the umbrella of a „lean” state), and let’s not forget the example of Romania where outsourcing the implementation of a service to the private sector was done poorly, without taking into account the citizen’s experience to say the least.
What now? GovTech is now.
We’re not reinventing the wheel here, let’s get that straight. GovTech is described as an IT sector that deals with creating innovative technological solutions for public administrations at any level. Clearly, there’s nothing new under the sun. However, the way of creating these new solutions is different. It doesn’t start from the idea that the state doesn’t know how to make good services and only the private sector can, and we must transfer expertise directly there. It actually starts from the idea that the state needs collaboration to solve problems, and these collaboration perspectives are found in several places and in several ways, and solving a problem related to public administration is not just about acquiring software or an application. More is needed.
So let’s recap. GovTech is:
- the partnership between public sector organizations and innovative startups and SMEs to solve societal problems (according to the definition provided by the JRC of the European Commission)
- close cooperation between the state and young and innovative companies, such as startups, with the aim of delivering better public services (definition aggregated from the literature)
- an integrated approach to modernizing the public sector, encompassing three aspects: citizen-centeredness, accessible public services, and an integrated approach to digital transformation (definition from the World Bank)
The literature also shows that there are two types of activities in which such initiatives can get involved:
- corrective activities for the public sector. When it’s clear that something isn’t working well in terms of digital public service provision or there is this push towards digital transformation, as done by the EU. Like „how do we issue the tax certificate online?” Nothing out of the ordinary, but maybe things that others have already done.
- innovation activities for the public sector. When there is a new challenge or when you can’t find a key solution on the market. Or maybe you can find it, but you don’t want to spend so much money on it and it can be done cheaper.
Many approaches, many definitions. What is clear is that it depends on the „think outside the box” mentality. What is also clear is that it is more than an IT sector that churns out applications for the state, but it is about the collaboration between the private and public sectors to solve a problem and it is not something that happens once and that’s it. It involves supporting this collaboration in the long term to be able to change the logic of digital public services. From the simple „how to enroll my child in school” to internal matters, such as budget simulation with the help of data. Still, I don’t think it’s clear yet how it works, and it’s best to look at the dynamics of the sector and a few examples from Europe.
GovTech in Europe
Several countries with better or worse rankings in the EU Digital Economy and Society Index have shown openness towards such initiatives and have established government or mixed programs to support the development of tech solutions for their public services. The map below shows just a few initiatives.
If you look at their names, you don’t always know if they are public entities or not. And that’s the point. Some are laboratories, some are competence centers, some are research centers, directly under the government (Scotland) or a government agency (Israel). Others are supported by a consortium, such as Accelerate Estonia (a consortium made up of the Tallinn city government, Tallinn University of Technology, and the government). What all these names have in common is that they are often places where you can experiment. And that’s also the point. European Commission research shows that most of these entities benefit from strong government or leadership support, which gives credibility to the initiative. But they are somewhat independent.
How does it work? One of the main characteristics is that the budget for such initiatives is limited, but suitable for thinking on a small scale of digital public service solutions, leaving room for scaling at the end. Anyway, there is room for experimentation, and that means failure is part of the activity. But research also shows that a delicate balance must be struck between experimentation and performance. Something’s gotta give.
What exactly are they doing? The European Commission identifies about 6 modes of operation:
- „challenge” activities – the state comes up with a problem and offers a prize for solving it. The solution can be funded and tested directly in ministries or other corners of the public administration, and those who have innovated have a chance to use the public sector infrastructure. What’s good is that the solution is first validated before it is extended to its use
- hackathons – for rapid mobilization of resources and energy and efficient cost-effective solution creation. Hackathons take place over several days, and the complete solution is only modeled, not actually realized, which can lead to the loss of the idea if no concrete intervention is made for its implementation
- accelerator programs, structured training, mentoring, and support programs for developing solutions (usually tech), where teams participate for a limited period of time. At the end of this program, there is a „demo day”, a day when teams present their ideas to potential clients from the public space or investment funds. The problem is that these clients are not required to choose the winning solutions, and of course, for this approach to work, the government needs „a lot of maturity”
- piloting – partnership with a specific company to test a program under well-defined conditions. It also needs openness from the state, but also legal framework for access from an external party. The advantage is that the two entities work closely together, and the exchange of information and collaboration is beneficial for the public authority
- research and development scholarships – awarded by the state following a competition. Winning companies or teams have a limited time to work on a solution, needing to justify the spending of funds to some extent. However, research is often conducted outside a framework of collaboration with the state, and leadership cannot quickly exploit the results from a political perspective because research takes time.
- last but not least – ecosystem creation – the meeting of several experts, companies, people from the public administration – who can offer guidance and expertise. It may be the hardest type of activity to quantify and justify, but it may also be the most significant. Why? Because such an initiative lays the foundation for more collaboration and exchange of ideas and does not focus solely on developing specific solutions but also on creating a much more open organizational culture that is so necessary for public institutions. Because it does not solve a specific problem or have direct results but requires financial resources, it can be difficult to justify.
All of this is already happening in Europe.
- Poland – the laboratory has been operating since 2018, under the direct leadership of the prime minister, has managed to grow relatively quickly, and receives multi-year funding. The set goal was to increase the efficiency of the public sector and contribute to obtaining data on citizens’ needs. What are they doing? Challenges, hackathons, ecosystem creation. They aim to increase SMEs’ interest in creating tools for administration, create a digital marketplace for state solutions, or create a base for training investors.
- Estonia – has been operating since 2019 as an association between the government, the municipality of Tallinn, and Tallinn University of Technology. The types of activities they carry out are ecosystem creation and contests with prizes for working on certain missions – such as mental health (yes, that is a public policy problem for them)
- Scotland – CivTech has been operating since 2017, and its main activity is the challenge competition, catalogued in the Commission’s analysis as an example of good practice replicated in other laboratories. How does it work? The organization sets open challenges to which any organization, team, or even individual can apply with a possible solution. There is an evaluation process for applications, and successful ones go through an exploration phase where they are refined, and the best ones from here go into the accelerator phase, where they will actually be built. They promote themselves as helping to create companies because most of the challenges they publish are universal, beyond jurisdictions. Among the recent challenges: how can technology help identify and prioritize support for people in vulnerable situations, starting with those with energy-related problems? or how can technology help manage infrastructure used by commercial operations in isolated or rural areas?
These are national-level examples, but GovTech is of interest to the European Union, and it is enough to think only of the avalanche of regulations that are coming over us or that are already implemented and that are related to „connecting” different public services from several countries. The main project that will stimulate the growth of the GovTech sector refers to the future regulation for stimulating the development of interoperable services at the EU level. That is? We have a single digital market, being able to order online from another country without any other restrictions, we circulate and use the Internet subscription as if we were already in the country, we can open our Netflix when we are on a city break. Why not have a single space for digital public services (where Union competencies and policies permit, of course)?! Attention, not unique services at the European level, but national services that communicate with each other.
Moreover, just a few weeks ago, the European Commission launched the GovTech Incubator – a collaboration space between ministries, national agencies working for digitalization and digital transformation, the private sector, or research. In fact, it is a consortium made up of over 20 partners – which will develop pilot programs at a transnational level, two of which are focused on information security in cross-border data spaces and support for obtaining social benefits with the help of personal assistants.
What about Romania?
From what I managed to find online, Romania is not part of the GovTech4all association, but that does not mean that it will not be in the future. But, even so, are there any GovTech initiatives in Romania that we can talk about?
The World Bank has an index called the GovTech Maturity Index which places Romania in group B of countries with a „significant focus” on GovTech, but the index focuses more on the use of technology in public administration, looking at questions like – if there is a data protection authority or if there are online forms for tax payment or if there is a portal for public procurement. Although interesting, the index does not necessarily apply to the discussion of encouraging innovation in public administration. It is good that, globally, we are significantly focused on GovTech, while DESI shows us at the bottom of the ranking 🙂 Another perspective: Ukraine is in group A of GovTech leaders 🙂
Returning… I will briefly list here a few GovTech initiatives according to the definitions and conceptualizations mentioned above, which I have seen in Romania:
- TechBridge hackathon – May 2023 – a hackathon organized jointly by our Ministry of Digitalization and the Electronic Governance Agency of the Republic of Moldova. The winning solutions are here. The Commission’s research shows that the downside of such activities is that they can be abandoned quite quickly if there is no framework to support their development. Indeed, I have not seen a word about prizes or next steps for product development following this event. Also, the parallel Moldovan press release shows that these solutions can already be integrated with their services, but we cannot say the same about this thing back in Romania. Not yet.
- Of course, Ion – „the first AI governmental advisor” – an exercise of cooperation between public institutions, universities and private companies – who have outlined a system that collects data about Romanians. For now, it only collects data – it would be interesting to develop a system like CivicTech Scotland with challenges to exploit the collected data. It is not clear Ion’s exploitation program, for now, it seems like an exercise to familiarize citizens with technology through the Ion caravan throughout the country. With the change of leadership in the ministry, the future is uncertain.
- GovITHub – a truly GovTech project from Romania, which gathered fellows (a kind of scholars) who have managed to create a series of tech solutions for the governmental sector. Like any good thing, it ended quite quickly. It falls under GovTech, being similar to the research and development scholarships identified by the European Commission. Unfortunately, it is no longer active.
- eBay and Romanian Post – a partnership for the development of a platform for „increasing the online exports of Romanian business products”. Practically a space where companies can register to ship products worldwide. The site is here. By the way, as the Commission said, GovTech is often reserved for large companies.
There are similar initiatives between companies and local public authorities, such as the development of a chatbot at the local authority level, but what is generally missing is coordination and the institutional and structural framework that allows innovation. Is that what is missing? Well, it’s hard to verbalize, but the spirit of experimentation characteristic of an innovation laboratory is what is missing. Maybe because most of the sought-after actions are corrective, maybe because we are concerned with achieving urgent, basic things.
Finally, I will mention a few barriers identified by the European Commission in the development of such initiatives, with the caveat that this is still a growing field due to the need for interoperability at the European level. And to reflect on why we do not have such an activity in Romania:
- (problem for companies) expectations related to growth in a limited market space – often there is only one buyer, and if you move to another state, there are additional costs and services need to be adapted
- (problem for the sector) there is domination by large integrators of services, companies that are all-service and often buy out smaller competitors and this leaves the GovTech sector without great prospects of truly growing as a diversified sector
- (problem for state) we are dealing with a traditionally discouraging public procurement process, for example, the specifications require figures that startups cannot cover. Or they are too complex in terms of requirements – multi-year aspects
- (problem for state) the bureaucratic culture of the state, profoundly different from that of a startup