Tanya Filer, Head of the Digital State Project, Bennett Institute of Public Policy, UK

By Apala Bhattacharya

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I lead the Digital State Project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. Through a suite of research and policy engagement, the project seeks to improve the capacities of governments around the world as users, buyers, developers, and regulators of digital and emerging technologies.
My main focus is on how to build robust and accountable GovTech ecosystems in which governments, start-ups, and other organisations collaborate to build more innovative public sectors and better run societies.

I would struggle to think of any technological innovation ecosystem, from advanced manufacturing to biotechnology, in which academia has not played a major role at all stages of the innovation lifecycle. Yet in GovTech, that relationship is only in its earliest stages. The Bennett Institute is one the first university-based organisations to study and guide the emerging Govtech system in-depth. It’s work that we are invested in because we recognise that GovTech holds the potential to affect the broadest scope of public life.

As well as researching the sector and engaging on a near daily basis with policymakers, founders and other sector stakeholders, I also seek to generate interest, excitement and a sense of responsibility towards GovTech among students. Public policy and business schools, often incubators of entrepreneurship, must equip students—potential GovTech entrepreneurs—to think holistically about the sector, from the business case to navigating what Sheila Jasanoff calls the ‘ethics of invention.’

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

Our forthcoming GovTech Policy Lessons, a report to be published in early 2019. In it, I explore several themes, from financing to public value and building pipelines of technological talent. These are topics that policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and others need to consider as we collectively work towards building thriving GovTech ecosystems.

The report doesn’t offer a blueprint, but instead proposes ideas that GovTech professionals may wish to explore as they seek to develop local or regional level ecosystems. Writing the report has been a brilliant opportunity to speak to individuals and organisations that are galvanising positive change, from the UK to Israel and New Zealand. We want them to try to think constructively and holistically about how to shape sustainable and accountable GovTech innovation ecosystems that speak to both the needs and relative advantages of different local contexts.

2018 was also the year that the Bennett Institute for Public Policy officially launched. It has been an incredibly exciting journey to date, as we finds ways to draw on the world-class strengths of Cambridge in both the sciences and technology and social, economic political analysis to help to tackle some of the most complex policy challenges of this century from a multidisciplinary perspective.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

At our launch conference, the Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir talked about the relationship between scarcity (of money, social contact, time…) and cognition. As the anxieties associated with deprivation encroach upon us, our “mental bandwidth” for making good decisions can become increasingly limited. It’s something that we as communities and individuals need to remember and address.

At its best, GovTech can contribute to reducing varied forms of scarcity (including the amount of time citizens spend navigating bureaucratic processes), freeing up bandwidth for better decision-making and deliberative processes.

What resource, tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

More and better data on the lifecycle of GovTech startups. Good analysis of such data could help us to ensure that entrepreneurs in this space are being supported in the right ways, and at the right moments.

What are your priorities for 2019?

Working closely with varied stakeholders—including policymakers, founders, researchers, investors—on long-term thinking and designing for GovTech ecosystems globally.

The current buzz around GovTech is fantastic. I want to ensure that we also extend our thinking beyond the present moment, designing robust ecosystems that endure into the future.

The sustainability of the ecosystem is crucial for several reasons: to ensure that technological innovation becomes a durable feature of government; to safeguard continuity in public services delivered by start-ups, including to vulnerable populations and during moments of policy instability; and to ensure responsible spending of public funds, whether the public sector buys from or invests in Govtech firms.

To meet the goal of building sustainable GovTech ecosystems, we need to further our understanding of how best to embed accountability, engender broad-based political will, provide and incentivise the provision patient capital, and create cohorts of technological (and other) talent who are excited to serve the public sector. In many countries, we also need to improve our public communications of the benefits of GovTech to legitimise it among citizens as an area of public spending.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

As an undergraduate, I studied languages, literature and history of political thought. Coupled with travelling independently from a young age, I would like to think that the critical skills I developed at that time help me to think contextually and to sidestep techno-universalism, or the idea that singular technologies will hold the same answer the world over.

GovTech as a sector can be susceptible to an overly-technocratic inclination—imagining there to be replicable or generic technological fixes. International lesson learning is incredibly useful, so long as we remember that actual transferable blueprints are few and far between.

In time-pressed and budget-focused environments, this thought can be scary—it can seem easier to roll out programme A in context B—but we won’t solve much if we shy away from it. We need to focus instead on identifying good ideas that manifest a strong contextual fit and that there is capacity to implement well in the local environment.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

More public funding bodies extending patient capital to GovTech enterprises, including multilaterals. More corporate VC interest in the sector. Universities coming to be a key source of talent, ideas, knowledge transfer and even space for the emergent ecosystem.

GovTech will become increasingly globalised, with GovTech entrepreneurs (and their investors) seeking to extend beyond their domestic markets. This process is already underway, but we are only at the foothills.

Coffee, yoga, music... what powers you through your day?

Conversations with smart and thoughtful people, which is one of the privileges of both working at the Bennett Institute, and Cambridge more broadly, and interacting with people from so many different companies and organisations! If walking or swimming is an option I'll almost always take it. Both are great for gathering thoughts away from a screen. Many months in Argentina cultivated my taste for cortados, thankfully now available in England!

Dr. Tanya Filer leads the Digital State project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.