What have we learned while helping to implement almost 100 GovTech solutions?
In many countries, the government stands as the largest buyer in the market. However, until now, very few governments have found a way to systematically utilize this power to enhance public service delivery, boost citizen satisfaction, and simultaneously fuel the growth of a smart economy. Addressing this challenge was the primary objective of the newly established GovTech Lab in Lithuania in 2019. Since setting up, the team has been trying to find a way to bridge the gap between public sector and startups and SME’s in attempt to promote the creation and adoption of digital public sector innovation and the overall development of the GovTech market.
To achieve this goal, GovTech Lab initiated an open innovation program called the “GovTech Challenge Series”, a nine-month-long program designed to inspire public sector institutions to experiment with emerging technologies.
Having run the program for five years, we have helped to address nearly 100 unique public sector challenges. Continuous feedback from participants allowed us to constantly improve our process and with each iteration we gained more and more knowledge and experience in the field of public sector innovation.
Therefore, the short answer to the question raised in the title of this text is that we have learned a lot. I probably couldn’t fit all the lessons into the text that is still appropriate in terms of length. Hence in this text I will share three key insights that significantly increase the feasibility of innovating in the public sector.
Stay humble and share power
Understanding the problem lies at the core of all innovation and incremental improvement. However, amidst the excitement surrounding emerging technologies, there’s a tendency to jump from identifying problems to proposing solutions too quickly. This often leads to disappointment when yet another experiment does not bring the anticipated change. This underscores the importance of approaching public sector innovation in a nonlinear fashion and rigorously testing each solution against the original problem.
Most participants in our innovation program stress the critical nature and potency of a well-defined problem. The tangibility, clarity, and relevance of the problem are the right starting point to any innovation project. To gain a deeper understanding of the problem and explore suitable solutions we seek insights from relevant data, engage with users and other stakeholders, and collaborate with startups and innovative companies. Yet it is not always straightforward.
The challenges arise from a twofold perspective. Firstly, the public often have unrealistic expectations of public servants, anticipating them to possess all the answers and make no mistakes. This expectation limits public involvement and co-creation, as the public frequently fails to recognize their role and ownership in public service delivery. On the other hand, a culture within the public sector where employees find it challenging to share power still persist. This dynamic is notably observed in our innovation program when we attempting to persuade challenge owners to focus on the problem and impact they aim to achieve, allowing the market to propose solutions.
In the field of public sector innovation and societal change, it is crucial to share power and empower various members of the innovation ecosystem to fulfill their roles. Meaningful change requires a shift in perspective, moving away from viewing those in power as the exclusive owners of public problems and towards a more equitable power distribution.
Sustaining the effort requires well set up team
Initiating innovation project represents one aspect of the process, while sustaining the effort is an entirely different business. During the initiation phase, common challenges include identifying opportunity windows for new ideas, constructing a compelling business case, and garnering support from both managers and employees. At this stage, there is a lot of hope and, to be honest, a lot of wishful thinking about a seamless process and outstanding results. Often, due to the charm of initiation, this step gets an unproportionate amount of time and attention compared to the actual implementation, where tangible results and change usually lies.
Compared to the initiation, successful implementation demands a distinct skill set and personal qualities. Our experience indicates that the most successful projects are those with the right combination of people, both initiators and implementers. Thus, assembling a diverse team and involving them early in the process, particularly during problem definition, is crucial. Engaging team members, including even procurement experts, from the outset helps to set up a right motivation and a sense of responsibility for finding the right solution. Sustained motivation and consistency are vital when driving public change, given the various anticipated and unforeseen challenges that arise during the process.
For instance, during the GovTech Challenge Series 3.0, one of the Challenge owners – the Communication Regulatory Authority in Lithuania, in collaboration with the startup “Oxylabs,” aimed to build a tool to identify illegal and harmful content on the internet, such as child abuse and pornography. Although they developed a prototype that seemed effective on paper, they encountered the challenge of insufficient data to train AI algorithms due to legal restrictions on accessing the training data. And even when a solution is fully developed, it may not mark the end of the story. This was evident with a tool designed to assess European bison-caused damage using advanced algorithms and satellite imagery. Despite a successful prototype, regulatory limitations prevented its use as a primary data source immediately. These few examples (and there are many of those) shows the importance of remaining resilient in the face of challenges to truly address public problems.
Solving a problem should be more important than finding innovation
Innovation, by its very nature, embodies change, and navigating the landscape of making a difference involves various facets, making it challenging to balance the little steps with the overarching vision. Ultimately, the core purpose of public sector innovation is to address societal problems. While the allure of new and shiny products can be distracting, it’s crucial to consistently return to the initial problem and assess the impact of the product on users’ outcomes. Therefore, projects should be evaluated not just for the development of innovative products but in the context of solving public challenge and gaining experience to solve another one of those waiting in line. And the second aspect of public sector innovation, is not always stressed enough.
When reflecting on the process of innovating in the public sector public servants often articulate the benefits of increased knowledge about innovation and technology, heightened receptivity to innovation, enhanced confidence in implementing change, and the establishment of new contacts and relationships with other public sector institutions, the startup community, and various stakeholders. This newly acquired knowledge and mindset become the building blocks for future innovative projects. For innovation labs like ours, the challenge lies in scaling this knowledge and confidence beyond the original challenge owners.
Getting back to the present, this year our program got over 120 applications and we could only select 27. At this point, we think that we hyped innovation enough and with this revelation we move to the next chapter of our public sector innovation journey. The lesson learned is not to overpromise or overhype innovation and technology as the answer to all the problems the public sector has. Technology is typically just one part of the solution, and a holistic perspective is necessary to identify improvements needed at every level of the system. Presently, our focus is on shifting from portraying innovation as something new, fun, and exciting to emphasizing it as a product that requires time, effort, and a shift in mindset to build. This transition is a challenging task, considering the demanding schedules of public servants, the lack of incentives for innovation, the risk of failure, and the ever-changing political priorities. Nevertheless, it necessitates a realistic approach that acknowledges the complexities involved in introducing and sustaining innovation in the public sector.