• Opinion
  • October 10, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 2

Our government wanted to work with start-ups. 2,500 hackers came

Opinion: We're starting a procurement revolution in the heart of Poland's government

start-ups govtech challenge

This opinion piece was written by Justyna Orlowska, GovTech Program Director at Poland’s Chancellery of the Prime Minister. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed. 


To say that technology is changing the world is now to say nothing. No longer does it also surprise anybody that governments want to harness this digital revolution in service of society. So when the GovTech Poland Program was founded, we were adamant that building a truly efficient modern administration required not only that we change which software we use, but also how we think and act.

This has always been a delicate issue for civil servants, who many still perceive as alterations of Nigel Hawthorne’s iconic Sir Humphrey Appleby, who would declare he’s profoundly displeased at any mention of change.

We however believe that public officials definitely have what it takes to become leaders in digital transformation and want to help them realise that. That’s because we’ve seen it first-hand. Last year, Poland’s Ministry of Finance decided to procure new digital solutions by means of a two-staged competition, which we called MinFinTech.

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Some 2,500 people came to Europe’s largest stationary hackathon to solve our challenge, meet our staff and hopefully have some fun while doing both. The best teams were then given new challenges of increased complexity and gravity, all leading to them becoming official technology suppliers to the Ministry.

They embraced agile, adaptive and modern approaches to procurement

While their millions-saving work continues to this day, the change we have observed in the officials who worked with contestants was perhaps the contest’s most rewarding element. Not only have they embraced agile, adaptive and modern approaches to procurement, but they’ve also started implementing them in other areas of their work and encouraged their colleagues to do so.

This level of enthusiasm and innovation diffusion is precisely what motivated us to continue our endeavour and expand it to the entire administration with the advent of GovTech Poland. Today, the program encompasses five ministries and two municipalities, all presenting challenges and asking entrepreneurs for innovative solutions.

We bring together administrators and innovators from every part of the country and let them cooperate in a new, effective fashion. Public officials identify challenges to tackle, while innovators present new solutions and develop them in cooperation with the administration. The author of the best solution is awarded an implementation contract worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everything in between is already taken care of.

We bring together administrators and innovators from every part of the country

The community we serve has two principal components — officials with challenges and innovators with ideas how to solve them. Unfortunately, these two are often separated by a chasm of uncertainty, outdated requirements and unreal standards. Our task — bridge it. And for that we need to combine three major components:

Foundations

If we want innovators to work with us, we must first work with them. We started by laying down the foundations, ensuring that our idea resonated with SMEs and start-ups. Holding workshops, meetings and seminars with hundreds of people from as many different organisations made us change our plan a number of times, but ultimately honed it into a formula both useful and responsible.

Pillars

Building on that, we went on to shape the pillars the bridge will rest on — the people behind it. For this, we have assembled a small yet diverse operating team as well as a number of representatives from institutions willing to put forward the challenges.

The fact that even the best participants will need a responsible partner on the other side is why decisive business owners, experts on local infrastructure and project mentors have always constituted the backbone of every GovTech process and will continue to.

Surface

If the structure is to be passable, it requires a smooth and clearly marked surface. This was perhaps the trickiest part — we had to develop the entire legal infrastructure from scratch. This required setting up standards and drafting formats, all the while making sure that the technical infrastructure was compatible with legal requirements and standards of objectivity, showing that we value trust as much as efficiency. After all, who would ever drive on an unstable bridge?

The key roadblock for start-ups wishing to apply for public contracts — uncertainty

Like every construction, this too faced obstacles, or to be precise one, which we have identified as the key roadblock for start-ups wishing to apply for public contracts — uncertainty. We found that removing convolution, using accessible language and being precise about the procedure at every step of the way has proven extremely impactful in attracting start-ups to take up our challenges.

Of course, uncertainty affects also the officials, for many of whom this was their first exposure to software technology. This however only means that they have a different skillset to utilise and can later serve as excellent GovTech ambassadors in their own ecosystems.

Finally, perhaps the most vital element of the entire construction’s design is that it is accessible to every manner of innovators, not just small and large, but also internal.

We have seen that within the administration itself there are hidden diamonds, ready to share a brilliant idea with anyone who’s listening. We want to bring them to light, let them shine and maybe one day they will be the ones to modify and expand our infrastructure, making procurement even more intuitive and approachable, causing current problems to fade away, tackling the new ones and learning something in the process. — Justyna Orlowska

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