Inside Poland’s ‘CanDoCracy’ approach to govtech

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

GovInsider speaks to Justyna Orlowska, Poland's former Prime Minister’s High Representative for GovTech, who shares how her team built an agile approach to government tech and crowdsourced solutions through hackathons.

GovTech Poland has sought to solve challenges with an agile, can-do approach. Image: Justyna Orlowska

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Before Covid-19 hit, Poland did not collect epidemiological data on a large scale. As a result, the country’s Chief Sanitary Inspectorate had to work with Ministry of Digitalisation and GovTech Poland to develop a common data platform to integrate various systems, track the pandemic’s spread, and support over 11,000 officers in conducting sanitary inspections.


This is one example of GovTech Poland’s “CanDoCracy”, shares Justyna Orlowska, who served as the Director of GovTech Poland from 2018 to 2020, before taking on the role of Prime Minister’s High Representative for GovTech until 2023.


For Orlowska, CanDoCracy refers to the integration of agile methodologies within public service, where public officers are empowered to cut through red tape and build innovative solutions to problems.


Her team established GovTech Poland in 2018, drawing inspiration from CivTech Scotland and GovTech Singapore – making Poland the first European Union country with its own GovTech, she shares proudly.


When she left, the team had grown to over 300 people. They continue to offer consultancy services to other ministries, connect startups with the government, and develop software to tackle new challenges.


“We used this institution as an innovative solution maker,” she explains in conversation with GovInsider.


She has recently graduated from Princeton University with a Master’s in Public Policy, and hopes to share her experience in the Polish government to support similar efforts elsewhere.

Solving problems with an agile mindset


GovTech Poland’s focus lies on creating an agile, solution-focused culture, rather than simply providing digital capabilities to the government, explains Orlowska. What sets the team apart was not technology but the methodologies it is using to solve critical problems.

Justyna Orlowska, Poland's former Prime Minister’s High Representative for GovTech, shares how GovTech Poland has reshaped the Polish govtech landscape. Image: Justyna Orlowska

“Many ministers heard that we were solving challenges, and some of them were framing their challenges not as digital or technological challenges. But we didn’t want to leave them alone…Technology was not our goal, the solution was our goal,” she explains.


This can-do attitude became known as ‘can-do-cracy’ within their team.


“We said we always can do it, and this was the magical term that enabled us to do things,” she explains.


Orlowska sought to protect her team from bureaucracy and create a space for team members to be creative, use design-thinking methodologies, and freely connect with the private sector to learn from others.


They also built their own internal digital talent to tackle tech projects when necessary – which came in useful during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hackathons to attract the best solutions


But what GovTech Poland is most known for are its hackathons, which have helped the agency build strong links with the private sector, startups, and society more broadly.


Since 2019, GovTech Poland has hosted “HackYeah!” annually, the largest stationary hackathon in Europe. Their latest hackathon in 2023 hosted thousands of programmers from over a dozen countries working to build a search engine platform for education.


“GovTech is the platform for collaboration,” says Orlowska. The team sees themselves as the bridge connecting public sector officials and private sector entrepreneurs, she explains.


GovTech Poland started as a special task force within the Ministry of Finance, later relocating to the Prime Minister's Office, to combat value-added tax (VAT) fraud.


Instead of tackling the issue like a regular agency would, the team decided to run a hackathon and attract people to try and solve the issue. Within 24 hours, teams were able to come up with a solution that saved Polish’s tax agencies millions of Euros.


“We were the first tax treasury in the world to present a challenge via a hackathon,” she shares proudly.


Hackathons have become a hallmark of GovTech Poland, and they have been used to address urban challenges, tackle frauds, and represent Polish history with new technologies.

Supporting startups in public procurement


To ensure these hackathons lead to feasible and long-term solutions, the team also revised public procurement regulations to enable more startups and individuals to win public sector tenders, she shares.


Developers in startups want to work on impactful projects and solve challenges, she explains. GovTech Poland’s goal was to unlock this desire for public good and ensure they had the opportunity to support the work of public officers.


Armed with design-thinking principles, they worked closely with public procurement officers, startups, and accelerators to understand the obstacles that startups face when trying to secure public contracts.


Through this, they realised that the law already supported agencies in procuring solutions through hackathons and they needed to change mindsets regarding procurement.


“Our quote was no prerequisites, no formalities. Only ideas and skills matter,” she shares.  They also helped to pass additional laws to ease the public procurement process for startups.

Digital change starts from schools


Today some of their most impactful projects happen with the Ministry of Education. GovTech Poland works with the Ministry to drive Poland’s digital transformation by starting with students, right from kindergarten classes, some of which have introduced basic coding classes.


One of their projects, Laboratories of the Future, aims to deliver tech tools such as video games, 3D printers, robots, and virtual reality goggles, to every primary school and inspire students to enter STEAM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). As of 2023, more than 3.2 million students across 15,000 schools have accessed these tools.


“We are the first country to introduce video games to our curriculum!” she says.


Orlowska notes that the team also focuses on the arts alongside STEM, as creative sectors will become more important in the age of AI.


They have also introduced a mandatory course in high schools focusing on business management to support entrepreneurship and encourage students to learn how to collaborate better on team projects.

“It is important to teach everybody how to collaborate, because at the end of the day, we will end up in teams in our future jobs,” she says.