£20m catalyses govtech innovation

Ahead of this week’s budget, chancellor Philip Hammond has announced a £20m govtech fund to help digital boost public sector productivity. The scheme is set to operate by connecting government departments with startups offering digital solutions, through a series of challenges. Julian Blake reports.

govtechA dedicated ‘catalyst’ team at the heart of government will help run a new £20m fund to address public sector productivity challenges, the government announced last week, as part of a package of measures designed to boost the digital economy.

The £20m fund, on stream for three years from 2018-19, will “incentivise Britain’s tech firms to come up with smart solutions to fix public sector problems”, the government said. Among the problems it highlighted in its announcement were traffic jams, teacher capacity and the experience of patients visiting their GP.

In June, a report by sector investment specialist Public estimated that the UK govtech market would be worth £20bn by 2025, with the UK well-placed to be a world leader. A separate Public report this month said technology was already reinventing UK local services, “propelled by startups and the most forward-thinking councils”.

The government says the new govtech fund will boost productivity by helping public bodies like the NHS or local authorities identify challenges that can be solved by digital. Innovations, many deploying Ai, will save time and cut costs.

Tech firms will be able to bid to the new fund and have “free reign to create truly innovative fixes”, says the government, with successful ventures receiving R&D funding. The catalyst team will act as a ‘front door’ to tech firms, says the government, giving them a clear access point to put forward their ideas. Once a product is created, the public body would be able to buy it from the tech company.

The government hopes the system will be win-win – offering the public body a digital solution to their challenge, and a stamp of approval from the public body to help the tech firm attract global interest.

Welcoming the new govtech fund as an important step forward, Public co-founder Alex de Carvalho said it was important to “make it less risky for officials to take a chance on new technologies. Make them see they don’t risk their large programme budgets and give them a system to help them do what startups do so well – experiment, test, iterate and learn.”

Carvalho hoped the new catalyst system would allow the centre of government “to actively engage and advise departments while speaking a language that technology startups understand”, and that the new one-stop shop in government would “help ‘democratise’ access for a range of startups.”

techUK president Jacqueline de Rojas said many tech business and entrepreneurs had great ideas that could revolutionise our public services, but struggled to navigate their way through the public sector to get those concepts off the ground.

The new catalyst approach could well offer benefits to local government. In this month’s Rise of Urban Tech report, Public said “more ideas need to be shared between public officials who should be empowered to take risks and try new approaches.”

Last year, government’s chief technology officer Liam Maxwell confirmed that 52% of the £1bn in work on digital innovation for the public sector now came from SMEs, compared to 2010 when 85% of government IT business went to just 12 companies.