The UK’s £20 Million GovTech Fund: An Important Step Forward

Alex De Carvalho

15 November 2017

Public’s co-founder Alexander de Carvalho explains the importance of the recent announcement by the UK government of a £20 million GovTech fund.

In a race to become the most digitally-savvy nation, Theresa May’s government has taken an important step forward for the UK by announcing a package of tech-focused measures to make it easier for more entrepreneurs to come to the UK and backing Tech City UK which has been a mainstay of the UK’s digital scene for many years now.

But to us at Public, the really important step forward has been the announcement of a GovTech fund and the intention to run a number of challenges – which is really exciting.

Public has been arguing for a while that Departments needs an easier way to access, fund and trial new technologies. Everyone is familiar with the line “nobody got fired for hiring Fujitsu” – which speaks to an innate caution in bureaucracies. Our view has therefore always been: 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. To go, as Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel put it, from 0 to 1. That is what Theresa May’s GovTech Fund now allows for.

And it will be accompanied by a setup which can help connect departments with startups. Governments across the globe have experimented with similar arrangements – a GovTech catalyst team. Cities, realising what the rise of UrbanTech can do for them, have had entrepreneurs-in-residence: The Urban Challenge programme that Public is running with the West Midlands Combined Authority is an example. Even the White House, under President Obama, created a fellowship programme for entrepreneurs.

But the UK could be the best system yet. It will hopefully allow the Centre – the Cabinet Office and Treasury – to actively engage and advise departments while speaking a language that technology startups understand.

We are shortly coming to the culmination of our GovStart programme which helps 10 startups over a six month period engage with and transform the public sector with new technology. We’ve learnt a lot in this period and have had many successes – with product development, fundraising and, critically, sales. It is clear that there are many great startups which could not only save the government a lot of money but upgrade services so they are fit for a modern, data-rich, smartphone-enabled age.

But these startups do need help – especially capital, insight, and technical support. We provide that at Public. But there is one element they need which is harder to get than many other sectors like fintech, adtech and so on, and that is access to decision-makers. Government is just a more difficult-to-understand buyer. We help with that too but having a one-stop-shop in government will not just be immensely helpful to us but will help “democratise” access for a range of startups – which is very exciting.

When Daniel and I started the journey to build Public, we always said that programmes such as GovStart would be successful when they have helped make GovTech such a mainstream that they won’t be needed any longer, and can be replaced by more mainstream accelerator programmes; when the UK has the £20 billion GovTech industry we predicted in our first report. We aren’t there yet – and we won’t be there for a long time. But with today’s announcements we are a step closer. And that is very exciting.

Join us at the GovTech Summit in Paris, on 12th November 2018 to bring entrepreneurship to the European public sector & transform democratic practices!

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