This interview is part of a series of 12 expert interviews on the future of digital democracy. You can read the full white paper with interviews here.

CitizenLab – “How did you get into GovTech?”

Daniel Korski – “When I started out, there was no “GovTech industry”. I had been working in government for a few years, and was seeing technology transform everything around me at breakneck speed – from financial services to advertising. The motivation to build PUBLIC grew out of the frustration that public services were being left out, and that progress made in technology wasn’t serving the public good. In other words, if the only thing technology has done for us is get pizzas to us faster, then we can say it’s failed us.”

C – “What’s the biggest hurdle for GovTech today?”

DK – “There are a couple. The buyer side still sometimes lacks digital skills, so it doesn’t always recognise value when it sees it, and fast-moving start-ups often encounter skepticism or fear from governments. There’s also an issue with the procurement system. A lot of the current procurement processes stem from a 2014 European initiative, which actually opens up to interesting alternative procurement methods; but few people know that, and even fewer are willing to experiment with these new methods.

These issues are improving, but they’re making it more difficult for GovTech companies to fundraise than for usual  B2C (businesses to consumer) companies. Finally, when it comes to innovation, the government has a slight tendency to focus on edge cases; however, they could deliver a service to the 95% of the population that isn’t concerned by the edge case and save enough money to deliver additional services to the 5% who need a tailored service. Although understandable, this is sometimes detrimental to service quality overall.”

“If the only thing technology has done for us is get pizzas to us faster, then we can say it has failed us.”

Daniel Korski

C – “In the future, will governments build their own services, or will there be better legislation to increase cooperation between Big Tech companies and governments?” 

DK – “The main challenge for governments is figuring out what they should buy, and what they should build themselves. The answer is straightforward: if it’s a commoditized product, then there’s no need to spend time and resources building it from scratch. Certain things should however be the preserve of governments: creating frameworks for citizens’ data, owning data layers, and so on. The final question is about who are the new players that can engage – who do we want to see working with the government? Do we want Alexa to use public health data and give out certified medical advice? As governments are realising that there’s a lot of innovation coming from the outside in, the future is going to see start-ups playing more of a role.”

C – “The political landscape is shifting, trust is eroding, and there’s a huge legitimacy crisis in Europe. Is GovTech embracing these changes?”

DK – “GovTech is actually part of the solution. Some GovTech companies focus on the citizen and state interactions, and some others focus on the way that the state is delivering services. Both types of companies are helping solve the legitimacy crisis. People are upset for many reasons; one of them is that they feel that they’re not getting the sort of support or service they deserve or pay for, and think that somebody else is getting a better service. In France there’s a serious divide between the countryside and cities, in the UK this divide exists between South East and North… those divides create frustrations, and reflect a disaffection with the level and nature of service provision of public services. GovTech companies are at the forefront of trying to solve that. They’re very mission-driven, seeing beyond the financial gain.”

C – “You mentioned north south, city countryside divide. Is this, as some have been suggesting, a golden age for local government?”

DK – “I wouldn’t say we’re in the age of local government. However, for a long time, people have been feeling that power and authority have moved away from them – moved to the big city, to the state level, to the European level. In recent years, there’s been a will to re-establish a sense of control which has translated into the election results we know. 

At the same time, local governments face many challenges that they can’t solve by themselves. Anything from traffic management to environmental degradations are issues that small cities acting in isolation won’t be able to address. So there will always be a complex interplay between different levels. Rather than the age of local government, I think the theme is that we’re living in an age of re-establishment of control; citizens want more control. Whichever layer of government allows a sense that citizens have an influence on service delivery is likely to thrive.” 

“It’s not a surprise that countries with a lot of intermediate layers of governance are on the whole more stable, more prosperous and happier.” 

Daniel Korski

C – “Should citizen participation be embedded in local government to help re-establish that sense of control?”

DK – “It’s not a surprise that countries with a lot of intermediate layers of governance (like Scandinavian countries) are on the whole more stable, more prosperous and happier. France and the UK are very centralised, hierarchical governance systems. There, you have the double challenge of a very strict, centralised state and of an eroding intermediate layer – these things have come together at a particular point of globalisation history, with a series of economic pressures, contributing to the Gilet Jaunes [yellow vests] crisis or Brexit. This isn’t being seen in Denmark or Norway, which are states which have maintained strong intermediary bodies. In addition to formal processes of democracy with elections at regular intervals, they have very active intermediate layers of governance (unions, associations…), which are an essential deliberative component of these societies. The organic deliberation which emerges has led to great results.”

C – “Do you think there’s a duty for governments to inform citizens and publish transparent information?”

DK – “It’s valuable for governments to open as many datasets as they can and to provide open APIs so that citizens can seamlessly make use of these datasets. There’s both a democratic value for researchers and activists to test and explore, and an operational value when companies use it to create valuable services for customers.

There are two main issues when it comes to government transparency. The first one is that the open datasets provided are sometimes in the wrong format; the second issue is the standard that we should demand when governments use algorithmic decision-making processes: what can citizens do if they don’t like the outcome? How much transparency is there about how much data is being used to arrive at a position? How much training data was used for the algorithms? For this second question, there are a number of steps that we have to take to maintain consent for algorithmic decision-making; but it’s doable!” 

Daniel Korski is the CEO and co-founder of PUBLIC, a venture capital fund that aims to solve public problems by helping the most innovative technology start-ups do business with the public sector. He also Chairs the GovTech summit, a conference that brings together governments, start-ups and investors.

Daniel has over 20 years of experience working in public policy and international relations. He has previously worked for the British and US Governments as a special advisor to the prime minister David Cameron, as a special advisor to President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and as a policy advisor for the UN representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina.