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Picture a world where the year 1999 and 2019 exist side by side: where just down the hall from one another, two people do the same job, seek essentially the same outcome and get paid the same salary. Only, one of those people uses a brand new technology to deliver an efficient, high quality service and the other is stabbing keys to input the basics into Windows. This is what government digital services look like today.

Hyperbole? Sure; but this is a metaphor for a world where one authority uses a startup’s technology (Cyan Forensics) to scan for criminal content on a device in just three minutes, while another uses the industry standard – taking a full 20 times longer. 

In the last five years, GovTech – technology that will fundamentally alter how citizens interact with public services – has exploded onto the scene, and has become a thriving sector of its own expected to be worth £20 billion by 2025. However, the promise of this technology can only be realised if we have a government-wide strategy that embraces new technologies, supports new entrants to the market, and provides a platform for innovative people, business and ideas to rethink how these services work. 

Yet public sector players have been slow to make the wholesale structural changes required to fully realise digital government. There are exceptions, but I would argue that – as a country – we are at risk of failing to deliver on the promise of new technologies, failing to take advantage of opportunities to improve the delivery of core public services and, as a result, failing the millions of us who use such services daily. 

A society that makes our lives safer, more fulfilling, and more productive is possible. It will be possible to transform public services, so long as public and private sector players can work together to make that happen. Take artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G: both technologies are fresh, exciting, and filled with the promise of untold possibilities for innovation which companies across the globe of all sizes and sectors are just beginning to explore. 

Ten years ago, AI was science fiction. Now, it’s an umbrella term for a game changing family of technologies that are driving increased productivity and efficiency on a daily basis. The public sector has been relatively quick off the mark in its use of AI; the technology has been deployed to great effect by central government, local government, and others – including the NHS and Serious Fraud Office. 

The truth is, we should be moving faster. In just five years, the private sector has embraced UK AI on a massive scale – Google’s acquisition of DeepMind for $400 million in 2014 fired the starting gun on a boom that saw a record $1 billion invested in UK AI companies in the first six months of 2019. Investment in UK AI in 2018 topped out at more than the 49 other countries in Europe combined. Startups are a huge part of that. Five of the UK’s 16 ‘unicorns’ (startup companies with a valuation over $1 billion US) are in the AI space. 

The rollout of 5G across 20 UK cities this year makes it the newest development I’ve touched on in this article, yet arguably the one with least hype. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that I can now order pizza faster than ever before; but it would be naive to think that this is the technology used to its full potential. Across Europe, startups are deploying 5G connectivity in sectors from cybersecurity to smart cities, and we cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities for transformation presented. 

5G is already a massive opportunity for partnerships with the private sector. In the West Midlands, the Government is already developing a region-wide 5G testbed exploring use cases and business models in mobility, citizen wellbeing, construction and manufacturing. Trial programmes – conducted in partnership with Bosch – have already realised a 1% improvement in manufacturing productivity – a vital gain in an industry with tight margins – while a partnership with BT explored the possibility of using 5G connected ambulances to more effectively triage A&E patients. 

For the UK to guarantee the benefit of advancements touched upon here – as well as many others that could help secure a better-governed world – I have three recommendations. 

First, double down on support for the tech sector. 

In a recent interview, the CEO of Graphcore – a UK AI chip-maker – spoke of the potential for AI to transform on a grand scale. Medicine, law, finance – there’s a potential role for AI in pretty much every sector and any interaction you can imagine citizens having with the services they depend on. Government has gone all-in to promote the technology in 2019, introducing the new AI Sector Deal, guidance for public sector bodies on using AI applications, and the formation of a new AI Advisory Council to “supercharge the Artificial Intelligence sector”. These are all fairly recent developments given that Google purchased DeepMind in 2014, but where the public sector has lost time on AI, it has made up for it through ambition. Similarly in the 5G sphere, a new accelerator is testament to the Government’s ambition in this area too: a welcome exploration of how startups can exploit the technology in the development of new products and services. 

To keep up this momentum after Brexit, the UK is going to have to stay ahead of the competition at every turn. In this regard, we’re doing well – UK investment in technology is significantly higher than that of France and Germany (although they are catching up); and the UK Government has strategies and programmes to foster and support innovation across a wide gamut of sectors and technologies. Initiatives such as the Office for AI and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) are evidence of the work being done to make digitisation of the UK economy happen. 

With all of this in mind, it is disappointing to read reports that a number of London boroughs are not yet 5G ready; a stark reminder that the Government cannot afford to rest on its laurels. At every level, it will be essential to amplify support for and commitment to the digital economy to guarantee that UK tech attracts the skills and investment it will need going forward. 

Second, it’s time to embrace digital government. 

Strategy is nothing without execution. Sector deals, guidance and strategies are not worth the paper they’re written on if the people and processes that bring the public and private sectors together kill real innovation before it has even begun. 

Casting my eye down the list of startups working out of PUBLIC Hall – PUBLIC’s new GovTech hub in Whitehall – what stands out is the extraordinary potential for technology to radically improve core services. Take, just as an example, the health service: whether it’s digitally streamlining referrals to specialist services (Cinapsis); rethinking patient consent (Flynotes); or combining behavioural insights and artificial intelligence to increase the quality of life and survival times for cancer patients (the award-winning Vine Health) – the future of technology in the NHS goes far beyond ‘axe the fax’; it is startups like the ones mentioned here that will be the instigators of that future. 

With opportunities for digital transformation staring decision makers in the face, policymakers have been exploring the route to digital government. NHSX launched in early 2019 to “bring the benefits of modern technology to every patient and clinician”, and “combine the best talent from government, the NHS and industry”; similar programmes are in motion across Whitehall and further afield, but initiatives with this level of ambition are the exception. To truly harness the value from technology, public buyers need to further explore new ways of working and deliver a new model for public services. 

Third, build the platform from which entrepreneurs can engage and transform. 

We founded PUBLIC not just so that we could back great ideas; we did it to break down barriers, reconciling the inherent tensions that prevent pioneering public buyers from doing business with groundbreaking entrepreneurs. 

We’ve found that what’s needed to do this is simple ideas. Ideas like one, single online system for accessing and bidding for public sector contracts or a procurement innovation team to champion new models of procurement and market engagement. I’ve said before that G-Cloud, the platform for public sector buyers to choose and buy cloud computing services, is not fit for purpose – and is just one of many that startups must grapple with to secure public contracts. 

From there, what next? Transparency in supply chain processes, new payment models, rewarding commercial decision makers when they buy innovation and it pays off; there are so many solutions, many of which are really quite simple, but will require Whitehall to break out of its mould to deliver. 

Whether or not you agree that the technologies I’ve discussed here are set to be game-changers or not, the UK’s response to each is already in motion. Make no mistake however, the most important technological development for society right now is GovTech, and the recommendations here will be critical to an effective UK response. 

I’ve said this many times in the past but it bears repeating: a system that promotes the participation of startups in the delivery of public services isn’t just going to be the most innovative, it’ll be the one that is best protected from exposure. When Carillion failed, the sheer volume of government contracts held drove the knife further and further in. Outsourcing is essential, but it has to deliver the digital transformation that the public deserves, and to do this government must level the playing field.

Daniel Korski CBE is the co-founder and CEO of PUBLIC. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Digital disruption?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.