Technology can’t fix all our problems, but the right solution at the right time can be a life-saver
This article is written by Olivia Blanchard, Researcher, Digital Future Society
The Covid-19 pandemic has blitzed through and turned the world as we knew it on its head.
So far there are seven million diagnosed cases and over 400,000 deaths. Social distancing and personal protective equipment have become the new normal, while false and misleading information about the virus has proliferated on the internet.
Against this backdrop, governments have turned to tech companies, big and small, for help in the race against the clock to design and develop tools to predict and track the spread of the disease, to manage medical equipment supply in hospitals and to inform and engage with citizens. In mid-March for instance, the UK’s Prime Minister held a summit — baptised as a “digital Dunkirk” – and invited leading tech companies and AI researchers to join government efforts in dealing with the virus.
Faced with unprecedented challenges, GovTech competitions and hackathons have been launched across the world at transnational, state, regional and city levels, bringing together governmental agencies, non-profits, scientists, tech companies, social science researchers and civil society. In Spain, the Catalan government and the internet research and innovation foundation I2Cat, together with other entities, launched the “hackovid” hackathon calling for tech-based solutions to address citizens’ problems during and following the lockdown.
Three hundred developers and technologists participated and 170 citizen’s needs were detected through a participatory process. The result was 60 tech based solutions, five of which were selected and received funding. This global health crisis has “sparked a wave of agile data and tool design work aimed at both informing and engaging with citizens. ” […] It is perhaps the single largest digital mobilisation around a shared challenge”.
Making GovTech stick
Among other things, the pandemic has highlighted the relevance of public sector innovation and the importance of having vibrant GovTech ecosystems. At the same time, the public health emergency is accelerating the digitisation of private and public entities alike and is creating significant opportunities for multi-sector partnerships.
However, consolidating GovTech ecosystems and driving solid tech-based citizen engagement strategies is not free of challenges at the best of times, let alone amid a pandemic.
For starters, a lack of funding opportunities and complex and long public procurement cycles, are two key obstacles for start-ups entering the public sector marketplace. Scalability and long-term continuity are other problematic issues. Some of the ideas offered by start-ups in the current pandemic call for solutions that are too ambitious to succeed immediately, or require working with health data that is not currently available. Another concern is the use of personal data by private companies in crowdsourced services (such as self-reporting apps) which are being built quickly for the crisis. Privacy experts are still debating the implications for privacy and data protection of these newly built tools.
The answer lies in seeing technology not as a “silver bullet” – a quick fix for our Covid-19 related problems – but as a tool that, used in tandem with citizen centred policies, has the potential to accelerate the process towards reaching viable solutions. In that sense, data sovereignty and privacy are two fundamental ingredients of the quality standards of any GovTech initiative.
GovTech can be particularly helpful at a time when disinformation and mistrust can have serious consequences from a public health perspective
To build vibrant Govtech ecosystems, a key step is to set up a dedicated GovTech programme or agency — such as GovTech Polska — as a reference point for private initiatives, startups and other actors at all public sector levels (state, regional and local). A second step is to create specialised investment funds and tax incentives for investments in GovTech solutions development. A third is to establish flexible procurement frameworks that allow all government levels to pilot and experiment with new solutions; and finally, taking inspiration from the fintech sector, to establish GovTech-specific regulatory sandboxes to allow GovTech solutions to be tested safely.
The appeal of public service
Another common challenge found in the GovTech field is getting enough qualified and talented individuals in and outside of government.
In terms of culture, the public and private sectors can be worlds apart. Inflexible recruitment policies — in addition to higher salaries and benefits offered by private companies — hinder public agencies from attracting public servants with digital entrapreneurial skills; and for those who are interested in a career in public service, simply getting their foot in the door can be difficult.
In this respect the state of New York offers a useful example of how to facilitate entry into the public sector. In March they launched their pilot Digital Service project to drive digital transformation and modernise its social service delivery. The project calls on technologists to join for up to 18 months in what they call a “civic tour of duty”. This type of initiative is a win-win for both the private and the public sectors. On the one hand it allows for fresh ideas and innovative ways of doing things to permeate government agencies. On the other hand, technologists can return to their jobs with a deeper understanding of the complexities of governmental life and the challenges faced by public servants.
Building inclusive solutions
At a time when entire countries have been asked to go into lockdown, engaging citizens in an effective way is an essential part of the fight against the new coronavirus. In the UK, within a few hours following the launch of the government scheme for people to volunteer with the National Health Service, half a million people had signed up. Once they register and have their credentials verified, respondents can log-in to an app and access in-real-time the local volunteer tasks nearby.
GovTech can be particularly helpful at a time when disinformation and mistrust can have serious consequences from a public health perspective. In Poland, for instance, GovTech Polska and the Polish Press Agency have launched #fakehunter, a mobile app designed to verify content and fight disinformation related to Covid-19. Key partners include tech companies and consultants.
This global health emergency is an opportunity to accelerate the digitisation of the public sector and strengthening the GovTech ecosystems which are already developing across different countries
However, all citizen engagement campaigns — tech-based or otherwise — share a few common hurdles that must be overcome. These challenges include managing expectations, preventing participation fatigue, striking a balance between quantity and quality of citizens’ contributions and ensuring inclusiveness.
In the case of the Covid-19 crisis, inclusion is a fundamental part of any GovTech-based citizen engagement initiative. Developing apps and other tech-based tools for dealing with a pandemic will fall short of meeting the desired objectives if certain people — often the most vulnerable — are unable to use them.
As Shira Ovide reminds us in her New York Times column: “technology will not end a pandemic. People will”. So we must ensure that tech-based solutions are inclusive and offer alternatives for those outside the digital space – whether that be senior citizens or other collectives that do not have access to the internet or the required digital skills. An example of how this can be done is provided by Decide Madrid — a citizen participation web portal launched by Madrid City Hall in 2015 and now deployed in 130 cities worldwide — which offers the option of sending in a paper ballot in addition to the online voting system.
What will we see in hindsight?
This global health emergency is an opportunity to accelerate the digitisation of the public sector and strengthening the GovTech ecosystems which are already developing across different countries. There is still some way to go before we reach the end of the pandemic, but two lessons can already be drawn from this crisis:
One is the need for different sectors and stakeholders to work closer together, with the government as a platform and citizens at the centre.
Another is that collective intelligence remains a largely untapped potential and citizen-centred, inclusive GovTech tools, can help policymakers innovate and become more agile in their response to, not only future outbreaks, but day to day social needs. — Olivia Blanchard