This opinion piece was written by Justyna Orłowska, director and head of GovTech Poland.
When you hear the words “public startup”, you will probably think of companies listed on a stock exchange. But there are other types of startups — ones that live inside government. My team, GovTech Poland, is building a startup within the administration responsible for shaping Poland’s innovation and GovTech policy.
So, how can a government agency be a startup? To answer one question with another: what else would you call a dedicated team of people with diverse backgrounds dedicated to a shared goal?
In our case, the goal is to bring innovations to the public sector in a completely new way. Launching competitions, setting standards and putting best practices in place, we are committed to building bridges between innovators and the administration. Above all, perhaps, we are trying to harness the state’s potential to act as a critical engine of growth for the innovation community and a first choice source of investment for SMEs.
Just think about it for a second. What better investor is there than one that has a constant need for technology and the means to purchase it — as well as iron-clad stability and an entire court system designed to ensure providers are treated fairly? Add the fact that most innovative solutions obtained by the state go to high-impact causes, and you may start to wonder why government offices aren’t flooded with pitches and cooperation requests.
Well, one reason could be that they can’t — not just because the path before someone can officially read your offer is tiresome, but mostly because agencies are afraid of going off the beaten track. The convenience of traditional procurement methods often blinds us to the fact that there are other opportunities available. To do advantage of them, however, one needs to be taught how — and that is precisely our budding enterprise’s role.
As with most startups, we had a moment of inspiration that is now the cornerstone of our philosophy. Last year, in the Ministry of Finance, the group that was to later become our core team was tasked with coming up with a way to purchase technologies in a manner that would allow the tax authorities to obtain new solutions just as fast as fraudsters adapt to old ones. There was, however, another challenge — the administration only knew what their needs were — not how to meet them. We decided that’s enough.
We choose teams based on ideas and skills, rather than budget and market position
Currently, 99% of tenders require participants to conform to detailed descriptions. This means that officials are pretending to know more about technology than developers themselves. We, instead, leave developers to craft their own approach: we present only a functional description of what is required, and give the developers the flexibility to choose which tools they use.
Their work is not just contributing to a campaign that has saved taxpayers billions of dollars, but also inspired the Ministry’s intrapreneurs to come up with bold, innovative strategies, and us to bring our efforts to a wider audience. For example, one team crafted an algorithm that crawls through all auction portals and pinpoints projects of illegal origin. As a result, some types of fraud were cut by over 80%.
This is how our startup became what it is now – a team operating out of the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with building bridges between officials and innovators. We set standards and develop tools that make procurement more efficient and agile, allowing those with ideas for improvement to meet those who can help them come to fruition.
How do we achieve this? We remove barriers and invite the entire developer community to a competition that selects teams based on ideas and skills, rather than budget and market position.
For the public, by the public
Indeed, the playing field needs to be levelled not just on the side of providers, but also the administration. This is why our pilot is joined by both ministries and municipalities, which all present challenges they’re currently facing. We bring them together with innovators, letting both cooperate in a new, effective fashion.
This requires that all parties focus on what they do best — officials identify challenges, while innovators design the best solutions and develop them alongside the administration. While all entrants receive our support, the winning work’s founder is awarded an implementation contract worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything in between is already taken care of.
It is important to note that administrative startups also feel the weight of outdated regulations and unwarranted constraints, and know how wing-clipping they can be. This is why, for the past several months we focused on engaging startups and SMEs in a conversation that led to removing unnecessary formalities and replacing them with modern, agile processes designed specifically for this purpose.
Our system takes them on a path from an administrative problem and open challenge, through a brilliant idea, and finally a fully functional product. After the competitions end, winners continue to be supported by the state, through promotion or participation in other programs.
We are working on a comprehensive package of solutions ranging from an acceleration scheme to a marketplace platform, which will allow institutions and innovators to share their solutions just like companies share applications. Ultimately, however, our startup is coming up with ways — technological, strategic, financial and more — to shape procurement as it was always supposed to be — for the public, by the public. —Justyna Orłowska
(Picture credit: GovTech Poland)