What exactly does it mean for a government to innovate? Often, the question reduces to whether governments are indeed innovative or not, often compared to private businesses. But perhaps that’s not the best way to attack the problem.

At Innovation 2023, an alternative way of approaching the subject was broached.  

Governments cannot innovate themselves, neither can businesses. Rather, they are part of a broader ecosystem that involves the public as well. The objectives set by the government are constrained by votes and by public-private partnerships. If innovation is to truly succeed, it is not enough that one of those parts works. The whole ecosystem must enter a trust-based collaboration.

Innovation follows trust 

Countries such as Denmark have high levels of trust.

That explains why, amongst other things, Denmark has found a way to include the public directly through citizen policy proposals, while other nations with elevated levels of trust, such as Taiwan, have taken this trend of government-public co-creation to the next level.

At Innovation 2023, Clare Martorana, Federal Chief Information Officer at the Office of Management and Budget, USA, summed up the power of this approach by saying that "often, people support what they help create".

Other nations, such as the UK, have lower levels of trust. That makes it difficult to utilize the innovative powers of the public at large.

Christina Lang, Chief Executive Officer, DigitalService, Germany, noted that trust in government stems from a broad, user-centric, and inclusive approach to government-public relations, while Megan Lee Devlin noted that trust is not inherent to people, but a result of the quality of government.

"It's not about digital only, but digital first."

- Christina Lang

Lang summed it up with the saying that “it's not about digital only, but digital first.” She stressed the need for citizens to be able to opt out of new innovative tech, and, as Mark Palmer, Vice President, Visa Government Solutions, Europe, noted, for governments to be clear about what happens if citizens choose to opt out of new technology.

Lang also recommended thinking in service design methods when innovating, keeping the user-centric view constant, and choosing digital-ready Legislation, as Denmark started doing in 2018. Innovations like that could and should spread faster than right now. That also includes complete transparency when it comes to data usage of citizen data and forms of digital consent.

If people get what they want, trust in governments will build up, and innovation will become easier.

That does not mean, of course, that unfettered trust is an unadulterated good. André Rogaczewski, CEO of Netcompany, highlighted the dangers of becoming a surveillance society where the social contract between the public and government is less than transparent.

Many countries have gone from being part of such surveillance states, and have emerged from them healthier, better, and more innovative.

Secretary of state Taimar Peterkop represented Estonia at the conference. Estonia was occupied for more than half a century by Russia. Since 1991, Estonia has managed to build open, transparent e-government. Amongst the creations is a Digital platform for co-creation, where all the citizens’ needs are gathered in one place. As the only country, Estonia has implemented Digital voting.

Just as important as citizens trusting their government, and governments trusting their citizens, is countries trusting each other and cooperating.

Andri Heiðar Kristinsson, Chief Executive Officer of Digital Iceland, for instance, claimed that copying the success of other countries has been essential to Iceland’s digital transformation in recent years. Amongst the successes are a government app about licenses, passports, cars, digital IDs, and so forth. 95% of Iceland’s population is on it. To innovate, we need to distribute our successes.

That point was made clear in the first panel of the day, titled Innovation in policy making


Tech needs to lose its innocence

Innovation has long come to be seen as identified with specific applications, but the tides are changing. According to André Rogaczewski, we are no longer making tech for tech's sake. In 2023, technology is policymaking, just as policymaking is technology. André made clear the need for tech to lose its innocence. Translated, that means starting to look at fixing the boring, foundational things: immigration, healthcare, and replacing legacy IT systems. 

It is not one thing or the other, of course. In the same panel, Paul Morrison, Chief Executive at the UK Planning Inspectorate, mentioned how the UK had created a platform where citizens could offer homes to Ukrainian refugees: the so-called Homes for Ukrainians Scheme. Megan Lee Devlin, Chief Executive at the UK's Central Digital and Data Office, presented just such a priority: to modernize the highest-risk legacy systems in the next three years. 

Such apps are important. André’s point was that we are entering an era where we need to prioritize the broader barriers to progress and innovation.

Within the realms of apps themselves, the conference made it clear that they are becoming more foundational as well with the rise of “super apps.” One example of a super-app is Ukraine’s super-app that keeps all licenses, taxes, fees, and so forth, in one place. Estonia’s super-app, mRiik, launches later this year.

One main innovative area that is becoming more foundational and less app-based is AI. 


Innovation in Artificial Intelligence

AI is having its moment right now. Ed Challis, Head of AI Strategy & GM for Communications Mining, UI Path, showed a graph to the audience: OpenAIs new multimodal model, GPT-4, scored in the 90th percentile of most university exams, far better than its predecessor, GPT-3. As AI continues to become stronger (some experts believe it will start to exhibit not just exponential, but compounding exponential progress), it will no longer purely be app-based but part of our very infrastructure. According to Kevin Cunnington, former Director General, of Government Digital Service in the UK, AI can, amongst other things, enhance explainability, manage digital id such as biometric identification, create synthetic data, and digital twins, spot human errors, and reduce automotive human tasks.

Governments are slowly realizing the need for a clear AI strategy. The conference displayed broad agreement that governments must balance the “move fast and break things” model with the “let’s not move at all” model. 

At the AI panel, Sana Khareghani, Former Head of the UK Office for AI, said that “Just because we do not know what is going on inside these models, it does not mean we should not use them.” Simultaneously, we cannot start using AI without having a sharp vision of how AI should be governed. 

The push for innovation across all areas of government: public policy, digital transformation, AI, inclusion & trust, calls attention to a glaring question: do we have the skills needed to innovate successfully?


We need a skilled workforce - including leaders

Chief Executive at Govtech Singapore, Ping Soon Kok, highlighted a general trend at the Innovation in Skills panel: public finances are under pressure, a lot of money was used on Covid, and governments are more prudent now. More broadly, both falling global fertility rates and constraints on skills contribute to the obvious fact there is a significant labor shortage in government, and IT and skilled jobs.

Thomas Beautyman, Deputy Director at the Government Digital Capability, Cabinet Office, UK, said that 50% of civil servants say they do not have the skills needed to give the proper public service. On the other hand, upskilling seems to work. Debbie Alder, Director General, People, Capability and Place, Department for Work and Pensions, United Kingdom, noted that 74 % use the skills learned from digital courses afterward.

In other words: upskilling works. That means upskilling leaders, too. One reason is that the retainment of skilled workers is often not just about money, but about management as well. 

Luukas Ilves, Government Chief Information Officer, in Estonia, also highlighted a paradox: while governments need to upskill their workforce to keep pace with innovation, governments also need to realize that they do not necessarily have all the skills themselves to develop new products. There is a great benefit to be had from strengthening the public-private partnership. 

And that brings us back to the beginning: the question of government innovation is a mirage. Rather, the question is how an ecosystem of nations, governments, companies, and citizens can work together to create a digital foundation that is ready to meet the challenges of the future.