Technology serves to create opportunities and also solve problems in the public sector. However, because of its many peculiarities, the pace of innovation is different, and its implications are more profound.
Managing bank accounts, taking out insurance, getting about the city, going to the doctor, looking for somewhere to live, keeping up to date on the news...all social activities are, to a greater or lesser extent, in the grip of digital disruption. That revolution is nearly entirely headlined by the private sector. But what’s going on in the public sector? Is it a simple onlooker, a partner in corporate innovation or a motor of change?
The term GovTech is used to describe all activities in which technology is used to improve the management of public services, either directly by the administration itself or through providers who apply the developments.
Because of its own pace and characteristics, public administrations cannot behave like an innovative and disruptive startup. However, through public tenders, some administrations are opening the door to working with other companies that have those characteristics.
Some of these companies were recently recognized at the GovTech Venture Day organized by the educational institution IE in Madrid. This event has already toured other cities around the globe like Lima, Tokyo and Toronto. It was held in Europe for the first time last April. Its objective is to identify and support startups that develop new technologies that can be used in public institutions.
Foster public debate
Unblur, a Spanish company whose software streamlines alert and information processes for emergency services, was named the winner of the competition, which also recognized Digiconsul, a support platform for consular employees regarding border security; Civiciti, which developed software as a service (SaaS) to foster public debate among citizens, governments and interest groups; and LetMePark, a mobile application to help drivers find, reserve, access and pay for parking. Refundme, a company that helps air passengers quickly obtain compensation without bureaucracy, also took part as did Knok, a medical consultation system via video.
Manuel Muñiz, Founding Director of the Center for the Governance of Change, a think tank for innovation created by IE, explains that there is an unwritten rule in GovTech: the smaller the field, the more open it is to innovation. The most cutting edge nations in this area, like Israel, Estonia, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, are not notable for their size.
Local administrations are most likely to apply technology to enhance public services in areas like mobility, sustainability, lighting and waste collection. “They are the actors who have the most direct contact with the public, and also have some room for maneuver,” explains Muñiz, who noted that Madrid and Barcelona are globally considered leading cities in applying technology to public services.
Currently, the technology is applied to public management for run-of-the mill affairs, but Muñiz indicated that those small everyday matters may have much deeper implications in the medium term than what might appear. “When the public administration does not do its job well, it not only poorly serves the public, but also creates discontent,” he says. Technology also opens new and powerful avenues for public involvement. As a result, GovTech is not only a question of business and services; if the rosy forecasts become reality, it could also be a tool to improve democracy.