Start-ups can show the way to public sector transformation

Written by Hanna Johnson on 27 August 2019 in Opinion

Hanna Johnson of tech accelerator Public believes that transforming citizen services will require government to adopt new ways of buying and using technology

Credit: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images/CC BY-SA 3.0

Whether it’s Citymapper showing us the quickest way into the office, an Uber taking us to our next meeting, Deliveroo bringing us our lunch, or Netflix playing our favourite show in the evening, we have come to expect technology to service every need in our private lives. So it’s no surprise that the same expectation is driving growth in govtech - a market estimated to be worth £20bn by 2020.

It’s a genuinely exciting prospect.

Govtech has the potential to transform public services through the application of technology, to the benefit of service providers and citizens alike. This might include anything from better, smarter, more efficient transport systems, to greener more eco-friendly streets, to more accessible healthcare. 

In order to truly transform society, we need to transform government procurement policy and working practices.

But while the enormous potential is undeniable, we’re not quite there yet. Government and govtech need to find a way to work together more effectively.

The public sector has earned a reputation – at times undeserved – for being closed from the market when it comes to technology. Although many politicians and public servants talk of the potential of new technology to improve society, knowing where to find truly transformative tech is often challenging. 

The fast-moving technology market is complex – start-ups don’t look and feel like the suppliers the public sector is used to. And govtech’s ecosystem of smaller players often can’t shout as loud as their larger corporate competitors about the way they are innovating. So, even when there is a want, there is often not a way for start-ups to win a place in delivering public services, and government tends to revert to larger, often less innovative, incumbents in the market. 

The outcome? Less innovative technology for public services and, ultimately, worse experiences for citizens. 

In order to truly transform society, we need to transform government procurement policy and working practices.

New technology brings with it vast opportunity. One need only look at sectors such as fintech to see the benefits of smaller, disruptive start-up businesses. Harnessing the latest technological innovations – be it in big data, internet of things or artificial intelligence – opens up the ability to transform the processes themselves that define certain industries, making them cheaper, faster and more user-friendly. 

Bridging the gap
For govtech examples, look to start-ups such as Futr, whose intelligent chat-bot service is being used by the police to enhance their non-emergency 101 service. Or cancer care app Vine Health, whose cancer treatment companion can help patients to better track and manage their treatments, and ultimately has the potential to improve patient outcomes. 
Once the worlds of government and tech collide, then, we have the opportunity to take innovative solutions like this, and use them to make our lives as citizens better, simpler and more intuitive.

Bringing together government and these newer, smaller technology providers won’t happen overnight. 

Policy decision-makers and government buyers need better access to tech start-ups, and that means stepping outside of the siloed world of public sector bodies. And start-ups need to understand how to work with government. Beyond the fundamental task of building a viable product or service, early-stage companies need to raise capital and develop a strategy to enter the public sector market and, eventually, to scale and pursue government contracts. 

Fundamentally, it begins with connection and communication. 


In partnership with Huckletree, Public has opened Public Hall  a new town hall for technology in London. Through creating a physical space to form connections and kickstart conversations, we believe Public Hall has the chance to provide a forum for leaders in tech and politics to interact, shaping a better society as a result.  This space will be a meeting place for changemakers – start-ups and public servants alike – to interact and share ideas. Whether through attending regular events or panel discussions, or simply sharing neighbouring desks, every aspect of the space has been designed with collaboration in mind. To find out more about the space, what’s on, and how you can get involved, visit the Public Hall website here


About the author

Hanna Johnson (pictured above) is chief operating officer at Public

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