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Can the public sector and startups work together to build an AI-enabled government? (Sponsored)

Artificial intelligence (AI) startups are transforming businesses’ operations, and are changing people’s shopping or banking habits. Also, there is an increasing number of startups and investors that are interested not just in the private sector and traditional industries, but also in governmental organisations and the public sector. But can the public sector and startups work together to build an AI-enabled government?

This article seeks to answer this question by discussing what AI-enabled government is and why we need the public sector to work with startups to build it. Finally, it provides examples from Lithuania of how such partnerships between government and startups can be created.

What is an AI-enabled government?

The AI-enabled government contains three core elements – better decision-making, better public services, better operations. Firstly, the government has an immense amount of data about businesses, individuals, transport, and even the weather. AI can help make smarter decisions by making sense of this data, detecting patterns or anomalies. It can help answer questions such as if we should build a roundabout or put a traffic light in the specific intersection, or what kind of employment or economic policy we should implement.

Secondly, AI offers an opportunity to reimagine public services. AI solutions can make sure that public services are both proactive and personalized for every individual. For instance, when a child is born, all related benefits and registrations can be done proactively, without human interaction. Natural language processing solutions can transform the citizen interaction with public services, by understanding each request and assigning it to the department that can provide a service – this way, creating a one single point where the government could be contacted.

Finally, similar to traditional business, AI-enabled government means intelligent automation of public sector processes, especially back-office functions. The use of AI for procurement is another area of potential savings and transformation.

Why do we need startups to cooperate with the public sector?

Although there are already traditional businesses, academia, NGOs that are engaged in government activities, startups are essential if we want AI-enabled government to reach its potential. Why? Firstly, if we want public sector organizations to have innovation capacity, they need to balance two types of innovations simultaneously. One is called incremental innovation, where step by step improvement is the focus. But at the same time, organizations must be able to undertake exploratory or radical innovation to make sure that they’re not just going step by step, but they’re taking leaps forward. Startups can help do exactly that. They usually come up with completely different ways how a specific business can be done. And this is how they can help the public sector as well.

The second one is skills and expertise. Through building AI solutions and businesses, startup founders and employees become well acquainted with what technology is capable of now, what is being developed and will be available in the future. Simultaneously, there is a significant technology talent gap in the public sector. And this is where startups can come in. They can offer their skills and expertise that the public sector cannot have inside their organisations. Furthermore, because of the knowledge that they have, they can come up with new ideas and solutions that can be used within the public sector. This became increasingly visible at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a need for quick out of the box solutions. Startups were able to come up with them and deliver them reliably. So why not continue this practice and why not include them in the usual processes as well?

How can we build this partnership?

Startups are agile and nimble organizations that have a completely different pace and way of working from the public sector. Despite their differences, there are a few ways to facilitate effective cooperation. Firstly, governments must include startups from the very first step – creating the vision of an AI-enabled government. For instance, two years ago in Lithuania, when the national AI strategy was being contemplated, it was not created behind closed doors. A community of public sector officials, academics, startups and companies was brought together into a flexible think tank. Lithuania’s AI strategy paper was written by the community and for the community. Lithuania plans to do the same with a national Lithuania 2050 strategy – to include the AI community in building the country’s future.

Secondly, the impact and the cooperation between startups and the government mustn’t be limited to just talking with each other, coming up with visions and strategies. The added value of startups is their ability to come up with novel solutions. Usual public sector processes do not necessarily reflect how startups work – their procurement was built for big corporations and companies that are more focused on just delivering technical specifications, but not coming up with out-of-the-box solutions.

To work with startups, the public sector has to come up with a new way. That’s exactly what Lithuania has managed to do. In Lithuania, the public sector team GovTech Lab built an alternative process that takes the best practices from corporate innovation and that can facilitate the co-creation of innovative AI and other technology-driven solutions. For example, the process already brought to life a solution that can make the internet a safer place for children by automatically detecting illegal content that has children abuse material with the help of AI. Additionally, startups are working hard to create a hate speech detection tool or build better police force management with a predictive police model. Next year, AI and satellite data solution to monitor green spaces and make Vilnius greener should be already available. At the start of the pandemic, AI-based chatbots were built to help with the increased load for the pandemic information centre.

Finally, to make the cooperation work, it is essential to provide adequate funding. In Lithuania, the funding is focused in three key directions. First, funding novel procurement methods to buy from startups. Over 40 GovTech pilots are being bought this year by Lithuania’s public sector. Secondly, investing in user-centred public services to make sure that digital public services are focused on citizens and their needs, and not simply mirroring traditional paper processes. Finally, additional funding will be launched, aimed solely at AI startups. This funding will make sure that AI startups can offer solutions for the innovative public sector.

GovTech Lab Lithuania is a project at the Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology and has received funding from European Regional Development Fund. Number and name of operational programme measure: 01.2.1-LVPA-V-842 Inogeb LT.

Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr is the "Editor in Chief" of EU-Startups.com and started the blog in October 2010. He is excited about Europe's future, passionate about new business ideas and lives in Barcelona (Spain).

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