A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about India’s Smart City program. Unhindered by the legacy infrastructure of a Western city, the Indian government has the agility to invest in technology that addresses the current and future needs of its people. While they still face the challenge of redeveloping established cities like Delhi and Mumbai, being able to build brand new Smart Cities provides the opportunity to innovate from the ground up.
Another example of a government that’s been able to take a ‘start-up’ approach to digital transformation can be found in Estonia. The 79th smallest country in the world and home to just 1.3 million people, Estonia is blazing a trail of innovation through Europe. How so? Well, for starters it teaches every school kid between the ages of 7 and 19 how to code, and has some of the fastest broadband speeds in the world. Estonians access nearly all government services online, while non-citizens can even become an ‘e-resident.’ All of this may explain why the country has a huge number of start-ups per person―one of which gave birth to Skype.
With success stories like that, it’s easy to look at bigger, first world economies and question why so many government-run organizations and processes still seem so archaic by comparison. If Estonia can do it, why can’t we?
I think the real question is how? How do governments successfully deploy and sustainably maintain innovation at scale when the stakes are so high?
A tale of two systems
India and Estonia share an entrepreneurial backbone and a start-up mentality borne of necessity. They prove that in some ways it’s simpler to build something from scratch than it is to try to modernize systems that have been in place for our entire living memory.
An infamous example of this is the failed NHS IT overhaul that saw the biggest contractor working on the project pull out after two-and-a-half years. To date, the National Programme for IT is estimated to have cost taxpayers almost £10 billion.
The immense complexity and scope of upgrading (or rolling out) a digital public healthcare system has plagued more than just the UK government. Over in the United States, the Affordable Care Act has been cited as being flawed from its October 1, 2013 launch date, due to technical glitches and web outages affecting the federal HealthCare.gov site. These technical teething problems have been, in part, attributed to the fact that the administration didn’t know until six months before enrollment which states would be building their own sites and which would be using the federal site.
In both of these examples, the governments involved demonstrated a big appetite for innovation, but appear to have bitten off slightly more than they could chew.
Bottom-up or top-down?
According to the eGovernment benchmark, the UK government is actually doing quite well for Europe―even when compared to Estonia. The benchmark is an important measurement on whether governments are aligned with what their citizens want.
There are a number of pioneering projects, both at a local and a central government level, that are changing the way citizens interact with government services. A bottom-up adoption approach can be seen in the pilot rollouts currently underway in 19 councils for Verify, the UK Government Digital Service’s identity assurance scheme.
Local governments are a logical place to introduce innovation. Like a modern start-up, launching on a smaller scale allows governments to leverage real-life communities the way digital start-ups leverage and learn from their online communities. They can ‘road test’ and improve technology prior to a wider rollout.
But there are examples of top-down innovation being just as effective. Peru’s Development and Social Inclusion department has established a social innovation laboratory aimed at boosting cost-effective innovations for social policy. The difference between this and less successful, more autocratic examples is that the feedback and input from citizens plays a major part in informing the lab’s efforts.
Delivering to scale with the speed of a start-up
A case can be made for both top-down and bottom-up tech adoption policies, and there is plenty of evidence of both. The challenge is ultimately in deploying these large innovation programs effectively at speed. Part of this is from managing the human aspect of digital transformation, but another part of it is inherent procedural bureaucracy and the vast networking of challenges that governments need to tackle simultaneously.
That’s why programs like the UK government’s Innovate UK, Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation and Capgemini’s global Applied Innovation Exchange are so important. These programs offer the opportunity for governments to connect and collaborate with start-ups. They provide an opportunity to establish value-driven partnerships and reduce the risk on both sides of the equation. Governments can benefit from start-ups’ agile approach to innovation and razor-sharp focus, while government departments and councils can help provide start-ups with the support they need during the early stages.
The end goal must be an inclusive and sustainable, city-wide innovation strategy, irrespective of whether the innovation comes from the bottom-up or the top-down. Public–private partnerships working together toward that objective can create Smart Cities that governments can comfortably manage, and that citizens want to live in.