Service deliveryAdult Social CareGovTech Fund challenges tech to solve problems

GovTech Fund challenges tech to solve problems

What impact has the Prime Minister's GovTech Fund had on the major challenges facing the public sector?

“Harnessing the power of technology is not just in our interest but fundamental to the advance of humanity. This technology progress also raises new and profound challenges which we need to address,” said Prime Minister Theresa May at Davos 2018. Her speech set out ambitious goals for UK industries and, with further investment in the East London Tech City and tech partnerships in Brazil and South Africa, digitisation and innovation has been front of mind for the government.

Stimulating government innovation and problem solving,  the PM also announced a new ‘GovTech’ fund last year to bolster the technology industry. The government, through partnerships with the private sector, hopes to solve some of the major (and some niche) public sector problems.

Since the announcement of  the GovTech fund, the GovTech Catalyst (GTC) team based in Whitehall has been operating “at the heart of government and oversee a new £20 million fund to help tech firms deliver innovative fixes to public sector challenges.” The GovTech Catalyst team supports fund candidates through the funding application process, providing guidance around the definitions of the ‘challenges’. As the fund aims to solve public sector problems through private engagement, government departments are asked to submit challenges to the fund. Vitally, the government provides funds for projects which, “must be the right size to respond to a feasibility budget of £50,000, with prospective solutions ready to buy with £500,000 of further investment.“

Round 1 of challenges submitted by various government bodies and councils included tackling loneliness, terrorism, waste, traffic jams, and council vehicle tracking.  Leveraging off of the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) and Innovate UK expertise, small and medium sized businesses are encouraged to suggest solutions as part of the drive to open government procurement to local and smaller firms. Together, SBRI, Innovate UK and government bodies evaluate applications.

A connected Monmouthshire

While many of the selected challenges aimed to improve solutions to practical problems, Monmouthshire County Council’s proposal focuses on developing “meaningful relationships regardless of age, status, circumstance or identity.” The vision speaks to everyone in the community, meaning for all council residents to participate and lead healthy mental lives. Monmouthshire is a sparsely populated semi-rural county – loneliness, isolation, digital exclusion and poor transport coordination plague residents. The council called for projects to “use technology to combat rural loneliness and transport deprivation, helping people to help each other whilst easing the pressures on health and social care,” wrote Cath Fallon and Matthew Gatehouse from the council.

Through GovTech funding, the council has promised to grant £50,000 to the five winners of the investigation phase – click here to read more about the five winning projects – and a further £500,000 for two companies to pilot solutions. Acknowledging the proprietary technology which may be deployed, companies are allowed to retain intellectual property rights.

Since opening the challenge in July, responses have been lodged from all over the UK. A total of 108 parties were interested, with 57 submitting bids. Meeting the policy objective of the SBRI, 65% of applicants were small and micro businesses, enhancing the possibility of supporting local companies.

Tackling terrorist propaganda

As part of an all-female terrorist cell in 2018, Safaa Boular became the youngest woman convicted of planning a terror attack. “The family had not remotely been religious,” but somehow, aged 16 in 2012, Boular learned to adopt an extremely conservative brand of Islam. Instagram, the online digital platform was where Ms Boular met IS solider Naweed Hussain. Images it seems, played an important role in normalising radical ideas for vulnerable minds.

Exploring solutions to combating terrorism, the UK’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) works to prevent extremism. The cultural and political aspects surrounding extremism are complex, but the RICU has invited submissions for Round 1 of the GovTech to “identify, catalogue and analyse terrorist still imagery online.” The Home Office is looking to enhance its existing toolkit – it already has technology to “automatically detect 94% of Daesh propaganda with 99.995% accuracy”, but this level of identification has not be as successful with still imagery due to the inconsistent nature and covertness of meaning.

Cutting edge recognition software is desirable. Home Office studies have shown that over two-thirds of extremist and terrorist materials distributed online is in the form of still imagery. The difficulty in addressing the volume of material does not end there. Propaganda of this nature may also be produced by supporters, and not the terrorist groups themselves. The consequent identification and removal of imagery becomes convoluted since supporters may not be from illegal groups. To further muddy the waters, terrorist materials are typically not found on official content sites. Terrorists and their supporters operate both in full view and on the fringes. Technology companies bidding for the initial contract need to be creative working within and on the outside of mainstream digital technology.

Minister for Implementation Oliver Dowden has hinted that “five private sector suppliers are in the final stages of a competitive process to work on solutions” to the Home Office challenge. The winners have not yet been officially announced, however, since the SBRI and Innovate UK are supporting the process, SMEs and micro-businesses may be preferred.

Welcoming technology expertise to the UK

In concert with the announcement of the GovTech fund, the Prime Minister’s announcement also detailed new visas for technology workers from outside of the EU. The number of available visas has since doubled to 2,000, an encouraging boost to the tech sector.

Tech Nation evaluates applications from outside of the EU for suitability across relevant technical and business roles. Tech Nation issues an endorsement to the Home Office for an individual’s entry into the UK. Tier 1 Exceptional Talent applications can be fast-tracked and handed out to individuals who can evidence potential impact, sufficient senior level management, or, plans to work outside of the Greater London Area. The intent of the programme, is to build a first-class UK technology sector by attracting talent from all over the world.

Since inception, the Tech Nation Tier 1 visa programme has had mixed results. First, industry experts have argued that the cap on tech visas is very low. At first glance, 2,000 places seemed reasonable – however, the places are not all reserved for tech workers. To be clear, 2,000 places are reserved for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent immigration category, which is spread across arts, entertainment, science and engineering. Endorsements for visas from Tech Nation have been allocated 200 places; other administrative bodies are given a similar number. Beyond the first 1,000 places, the remaining 1,000 are available to any authorised body who can issue endorsements. Depending on actual demand, the real number of tech visas granted is small – last year, only 409 applications were lodged across all Tier 1 visas.

A lot of people still use the Tier 2 route even if they are eligible for the Tier 1 route,” said Vinous Ali, Head of Policy at techUK, on the immigration process. The comment underscores the lack of awareness of the visa scheme. Equally, since many still enter the UK under the Tier 2 route, extraordinary entrepreneurs without the tech visa will need to be hired and sponsored by employers, effectively, quashing an individual’s primary profession.

Brexit has also impacted the immigration regime. Tightening rules, unfavourable sentiment, and a water-logged Tier 2 category have made it difficult for highly-skilled tech immigrants to come to the UK. The current cap for Tier 2 visas is 20,700 per year across all industries, and has been maxed out several times post-referendum. The BBC reported that 1,226 technology experts and nearly 400 engineers were denied visas despite having job offers because the quota had been filled.  Demand for skilled workers outstrips availability of visas, and as a result, businesses have pent up demand for IT skills – Brexit has heightened the shortage with the scrutiny on absolute immigration numbers.

While Brexit presents an opportunity to review the current quota-based regime predicated on employer sponsorship, the unwelcoming sentiment that new immigrants face impacts the attractiveness of the UK. Adding to the many intertwined Brexit issues, the tech sector also faces funding crunches and departure from the European Single Digital Market. Brexit has also been correlated with an increased number of racially motivated crimes, racism, and intolerance, negatively impacting the positive prospects of finding a new life in the UK, within and beyond the tech sector.

The next challenge

Coming back GovTech’s new fund, Round 2 challenges have also been announced recently, with much to look forward to. The new challenges aim to address new public-sector questions:

  • How to improve firefighter safety and operations
  • How to use data better in public sector audits
  • How to detect smuggled goods coming into the UK
  • How to better understand regulation and business
  • How to streamline medical prescriptions

Improving on the experience from Round 1, the GovTech Catalyst team made it easier for applicants. From dialogue with participants, the GovTech Catalyst team has opened up the process for applicants and eliminated reliance on MS Word; formed a smaller project evaluation panel, and re-weighted the assessment to focus more on user needs over where to deploy money.

Overall, while, the GovTech Fund funding may only distribute small amounts of funding for projects in initial R&D development phases, the prospect of solving genuine social and political demands is real. With companies bidding across the challenges, emphasis on upskilling and supporting small businesses, the GovTech Fund is ultimately mutually beneficial to government and private sector.

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