#DigiGovSpotlight Serbia’s inaugural GovTech programme plays matchmaker for digital government

By Si Ying Thian

The government plays a key role in helping the public sector to identify challenges for tech-based solutions, and building synergies between the start-up ecosystem and government operations, says Marta Arsovska Tomovska, Director for Digitalisation at the Office of the Prime Minister of Serbia.

Serbia's GovTech plays matchmaker for demand and supply of digital government solutions, says Marta Arsovska Tomvska, Director for Digitalisation at the Office of the Prime Minister of Serbia. Image: Kopaonik Business Forum's LinkedIn.

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Serbia’s new GovTech programme plays matchmaker when it comes to nurturing the demand and supply for public sector innovation, says Marta Arsovska Tomovska, Director for Digitalisation at the Office of Prime Minister of Serbia, to GovInsider.


“The Serbian approach is distinctive as it actively bridges the gap between the creation of innovation solutions and practical implementation within public services,” says Tomovska.


 In 2022, Serbia was one of two European countries that moved from “high” to “very high” ratings for its e-government development within the United Nation’s E-Government Survey, with the report spotlighting improvements in its digital service delivery.


Now, the country is running a new GovTech programme that connects public sector challenges to private sector solutions.

Demand and supply: Tapping on private sector innovations to solve public challenges


Tomovska highlights the importance of “symbiotic relationships between public entities and private sector innovations” as key to enabling the govtech ecosystem in Serbia.


As the link between public sector needs and start-up innovation, Serbia’s GovTech seeks to overcome the traditional procurement barriers faced by the public sector, such as rigid public procurement criteria preventing private sector and startup solutions from being adopted. It also trains civil servants to better understand new technologies.


To inculcate an agile mindset in the public sector, civil servants need to understand the benefits and applications of new technologies, she adds.


“Civil servants, now well-versed in disruptive tech, have become invaluable in identifying challenges for tech-based solutions.”


And when the government takes the lead in nurturing a solid innovation ecosystem for govtech, start-ups can more effectively respond to challenges faced by the public sector.


“It is essential to enable the environment for start-ups to implement their solutions in the public sector – not only providing them with crucial testbeds, but helping them to integrate into public service,” she explains.


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Three phases to build a solid innovation ecosystem


The first phase of Serbia’s first iteration of its GovTech programme focuses on creating demand in the public sector through training and capacity building.


Serbia's GovTech team. Image: Marta Arsovska Tomovska.

“These tailor-made, interactive trainings have enabled over 100,000 public servants to better understand and formulate policies around new technologies like AI, blockchain, IoT, robots, drones, 3D printing, VR or AR, Platform Economy and generally around digital transformation and innovation in the public sector.”


With a better understanding of these technologies, civil servants are well-prepared to propose impactful challenges for Serbia’s GovTech programme, Tomovska adds.


The second phase invites public sector entities to submit challenges that can be solved through the application of emerging technologies, with the third phase calling for proposed solutions by the industry, start-ups and researchers.


The government has allocated a RS$150 million (US$1.39 million) budget to finance the proposals across a six to 12 months’ life cycle – from developing prototypes, conducting pilots to implementing the solutions in the public sector.


Tomovska shares that out of 54 challenges submitted by public sector entities this year, including ministries, government agencies, local municipalities and public companies, 24 were chosen for this year’s call for proposals, which went live in February.


47 start-ups and R&D institutions have proposed technological solutions, spanning computer vision and 3D printing for healthcare, AI for decision-making and solving complex problems such as floods and waste management, and digital twins and public utilities.


The team is currently evaluating the contenders to determine which projects will proceed for funding.

Collaboration to adapt to evolving needs


Serbia's digital government isn't just about technology, but a culture of continual improvement and adaptation as the world evolves rapidly, says Tomovska.


“Cultivating an ecosystem where civil servants and tech start-ups work hand-in-hand enhances the demand for new solutions and supply of cutting-edge tech applications,” she explains, with core values around collaboration and a commitment to improve user experience guiding Serbia’s GovTech.


Over the next five to 10 years, Serbia’s GovTech aims to release dedicated calls for innovations, such as AI GovTech.


“AI stands as a cornerstone of our plan to modernise government services – making them more efficient and better respond to the public needs. We are also looking to explore breakthrough applications of AI.


“Some of the proposed applications include flood forecasting, AI for early detection of diseases, personalised orthoses for fractures, smart irrigation for better yields, AI for connecting the unemployed with employers, and the preservation of cultural heritage,” she says.


Serbia will be hosting the Specialised Expo 2027 Belgrade, the first-ever Expo hosted in the region of Western Balkans. Specialised Expos are global events designed to respond to precise challenges facing humanity.


Plans are currently underway to issue a EXPOtech call to create more opportunities for Serbian start-ups to display cutting-edge technologies on the global stage, according to Tomovska.