Government and IT companies: a blessed combination or a Trojan horse?

More and more Government services are online. Governments are letting companies run their IT. Whether this is a good thing or not for residents is the subject of a symposium.

Professor Nitesh Bharosa: 'Public organisations have a hard time when it comes to digitalisation.' (Photo from own collection)

The Tax and Customs Administration, government institutions and municipalities are increasingly manifesting themselves as websites where you need to identify yourself, log in and manage your data yourself. “We can’t make it any more fun”, the Tax and Customs Administration said. But making it better is often possible. This brings us to the growing field of GovTech: IT systems at the interface of citizens and government made by commercial companies. Can these IT companies guarantee that their systems will treat all citizens properly?

Professor of GovTech Nitesh Bharosa is the Scientific Director for Research Collaboration at Digicampus, the collaborative workplace for the public services of the future. Digicampus was founded two years ago by the partners TU Delft, branche organisation NLdigital, ICTU consultancy and the government service Logius, part of the Ministry of Domestic Affairs. On Tuesday 12 October, Digicampus will hold its first international summit on Collaborative Innovation. Delta called Bharosa about this rapidly developing field.

The Government used to produce its own IT solutions. Why is that no longer the case?

“Public organisations have a hard time when it comes to digitalisation. The back offices runs on outdated technical systems and there is little innovation capacity. And in some cases, the human touch in the digital systems is hard to find.”

What is the alternative?

“Commercial companies are increasingly acting as service providers between the Government and residents, and do so using the latest technologies. This development offers all kinds of opportunities to transform the public sector and make public services more user-friendly.”

That’s great, right? So where is the problem?

“The question is whether this form of GovTech is a blessing in disguise for public organisations struggling with digital innovation or whether the Government is bringing in a Trojan horse that it can’t live without later. Then there are issues about privacy in the IT solution. What else happens with the collected data? There are an estimated 400 GovTech start-ups in the Netherlands. If the Government allows GovTech to develop on its own, it risks closed systems, the undesirable dependency on one supplier, and irresponsible solutions from the perspective of public values. Scandals will then ensue and need a regulatory response to correct things afterwards. That would be a shame.”

It would. But can it be avoided?

“The central question in my field is how we are going to design and govern GovTech in a responsible way. GovTech calls for a different way of design where, from the outset, the different perspectives are balanced with each other. Those of the Government as the customer, the supplier, the citizens and the knowledge institutions that bring in independent experts and the latest knowledge. Add these four perspectives together and you get what we call the ‘quadruple helix approach’ to innovation.”

What is the advantage of this approach?

“It allows the Government to be involved in the design and testing of GovTech solutions. It also allows the Government to determine the operational requirements and public values that the solutions must meet, to establish open standards, and to define responsibilities in advance, for example in agreement schemes.”

Is that already happening?

“We are working on it. At the Digicampus we are building up experience, knowledge and methods on jointly developing responsible GovTech solutions. A living lab like this is important if you are going to develop technology together and avoid everyone reinventing the wheel. A living lab is more than a meeting place, it is an innovation ecosystem where entities can come and go.”

  • The latest on developing IT solutions for the public domain will be discussed at the Collaborative Innovation Summit 2021, the first full-day online symposium on the development of GovTech. Go to the website for more information about the programme and to register. The Summit is free of charge.
Science editor Jos Wassink

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