GovTech I: Lithuania’s tech savvy governance
With the launch of the GovTech Lab, the Baltic nation of Lithuania has taken some early steps towards creating an innovative public sector environment.
“Lithuania is a relatively young democratic country and that gives us ambition to innovate and employ a challenge-solving attitude to make changes faster, both in the public sector and in society.”
This was an assessment by Virginijus Sinkevičius, the current EU environment commissioner who, as Lithuania’s minister of economy and innovation, led the debate on digitising country’s public sector. This movement was sparked by the realisation that traditional bureaucracy, procurement frameworks, and other redundancies are barriers to efficiency. The shift in mindset can also be attributed to other European countries embracing digital technologies beforehand, like the infamous digitalisation-focused Estonian EU Presidency, Denmark’s digital ID verification project and the creation of the office of tech ambassador. Over the past 5 years, Lithuania’s digital economy became the 5th largest sector per added value. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2020, country ranks 3rd in the list of key enablers of digitisation, just behind Estonia and Malta, while for digital public services, Lithuania ranks 6th in the EU. The country also experienced an increase of 17% in the number of information and communications technology (ICT) professionals, as well as opened the first blockchain centre in Europe, and placed itself at the forefront of the FinTech regulation. The latter move resulted in a decision by financial technology company Revolut to set-up an office in Lithuania and move UK business accounts to Lithuania.
When Lithuania’s government understood that for it to become a 21st century institution, it must embrace technologies, an in-house public sector digitisation program GovTech Lab was launched. In addition to bureaucratic redundancy elimination, GovTech Lab follows the latest technology trends and looks for ways to adapt them for the public sector. In recent months, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has presented a number of challenges to the Lithuanian government, including inability to track people’s movements.
This was followed by GovTech Lab being tasked with incentivising innovative ideas on how to overcome pandemic-related challenges. To manage the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, GovTech Lab organised a hackathon Hack the Crisis. Several valuable solutions were proposed: (1) a smartphone app to promote self-isolation during the quarantine, (2) a chatbot ViLTe added to the national pandemic-related news hub www.koronastop.lt to provide faster and more reliable answers to queries from the public on SARS-CoV-2, amongst other solutions.
The agency is also heavily involved with establishing international partnerships. GovTech Week, an online conference by the GovTech Lab, spanned for five days this September 2020. From public sector innovation to global challenges, GovTech Week gathered policy and technology experts, start–up founders, and investors to discuss the most pressing GovTech questions. The event started with the focus on the European green deal, tackling the role of start–ups in solving the climate crisis, followed by days on public sector innovation, use of technology and data to solve policy challenges.
One of the more remarkable discussions was on viewing the government as a start-up to re-thinking the tax system. The discussion featured Estonia’s chief technology officer Kristo Vaher, Belgium’s director general for digital transformation Frank Leymanwo, and two representatives from the Scottish government, minister for public finance Ben Macpherson and digital director Colin Cook. Several case studies were presented, including Estonia’s automated payroll tax system, Lithuania’s online income declaration platform, and Luxembourg’s VAT DLT blockchain programme, each aimed at encouraging governments to support young, innovative businesses and academics to develop, test and commercialise solutions that solve public sector challenges.
The GovTech Week event concluded with an overarching progress of GovTech initiatives over the last years, from both startup and public sector perspectives, featuring GovTech leaders from across the globe. One of them, Daniel Korski, CEO of Public, one of Europe’s leading GovTech accelerators and a former special adviser to UK’s prime minister David Cameron, said:
“Digital skills are too low for [public sector] people to fully understand what technology can do, and at the highest political level there’s still a reluctance, and a lack of understanding, and – increasingly – even a fear what technology can do for public services.”
Whether it’s about evolving ways to incentivise creativity or file taxes in an easier way, the public sector must embrace technologies. Deeper technology integration into the public sector can also help at fostering increased transparency around how governments operate—and make public services considerably more public.
Find out more about GovTech Lab here.
GovTech Week recordings are available here.
About the GovTech series
The COVID-19 pandemic made it evident that “business as usual” does not work in crisis situations and that out of the box solutions to tackle novel situations are needed. We will discover how digitisation shapes public sector across Europe, showcasing examples from Finland, France, Lithuania, Portugal, the Netherlands and beyond. From fresh digitisation ideas to conventionalised government technology agencies (GovTechs), these series will tackle public sector’s need to embrace new technologies.
by Tomas Vitas