Civtech and innovation in government services

An Interview with Tim Barnes, Founder of the Rain Gods

Tim Barnes leads initiatives to support small companies looking to innovate the public sector by using IT and other technologies. The aim is to improve the delivery of government and public services, civil society or engagement with citizens, a movement known as Civtech1 which has just had a major boost from the Scottish Government.2 Here Tim explains what it’s all about and how to get involved.

Please can you introduce yourself and tell me about your background and the work you’re doing now?

My name’s Tim Barnes and I run an organisation called The Rain Gods.3 It works with large organisations to help build entrepreneurial ecosystems around what they do to help meet their objectives. We work with organisations like Nesta, Loughborough University and various other public sector bodies. One of the main activities that we run is called Rain Cloud Victoria,4 which is an incubator and coworking space for companies working in and around government and public service delivery. As far as I know, it’s the first incubator in the world designed around companies bringing digital disruption to government.

Can you tell me a bit about the work you do around Civtech?

Civtech is how we refer to companies, particularly small companies, that are trying to bring about the same benefits you will have seen in almost every other aspect of your life that have arisen from digital technologies in the last ten years to the job of improving government. This could be through better government decision making, better public service delivery, or better conversations between members of the public and representatives. Civtech is the innovative startup end of the much larger Govtech movement which is all the technology and services that government buys in.

Please can you give a few examples of those companies?

There are two broad categories of companies in this space. The first are creating products and services that are pretty obviously for government. We have a company called Represent.me in the Rain Cloud at the moment. They help people to discuss fairly deep political topics so their representatives can understand why they’re saying the things they’re saying. More than using a survey, it takes you through the process of, for example, why you think building a building is a bad idea and what can be done about it. If you take a bigger and more complex example like Brexit, you could ask why did you vote yes or why did you vote no and can we achieve some of those objectives by other means?

The second kind of company are businesses which could be selling to other industries, public sector is just one of them. We have a company in the Rain Cloud called Sentisum. They use sentiment analysis in the structured data that comes back from people interacting with customer service centres, so you log on to a customer service centre or a phone company or a government service and type something into a chatbot and their analysis helps people to read and understand just what it is that is being said before a human being has read it. This helps to prioritise the people who have got really urgent queries from the people who have once again lost their login.

How open is government to these kinds of innovations and this kind of disruption?

That’s a varied question in that parts of it are really open and parts of it have too many other things to worry about. It’s not that anybody is hostile in their own right. There are very few people, even the most worn down local government officers, who don’t actually want things to be better for local citizens, it’s just that they may well have been put through ten reorganisations in the last five years, had their budget cut by 25% and have other things they think are a priority, so they don’t have much headspace for Civtech. However, increasingly they are the people who are saying, ‘Well, actually I have to look at something more radical’ and some of these companies are there for them.

If you go to the top end, the ministers are very open. There is a theoretical target for the amount of money that central government should be spending with SMEs of £1 in every £3 by 2020. I don’t think that’s a target that’s going to be met as some of Spend Network’s own analysis suggests, but it was a genuine statement of intent. A lot of other policies have got in the way and that objective isn’t easily reconciled to procurement frameworks, but it’s a genuine target. Critically, it’s getting better all the time and, although most people can’t see it this way because most people don’t have the experience of doing these things in multiple jurisdictions, it is worth remembering that this is probably the best big economy in the world in which to be doing this stuff. We push out more government data than any other big economy about what it is we do and this data is a major part of Civtech infrastructure.

What should a Civtech company targeting the public sector do to show how they can improve government services?

The public sector is risk averse, and that’s not a criticism. It’s risk averse with good reason because if you’re a civil servant at any level and your project goes wrong you can expect the press to completely take you to task and if it goes right then no one says thank you. I ran a workshop yesterday with fifteen people, most of them from other countries, and I said ‘Who here can give me an example of a public construction that’s gone wrong in your home city?’ Everyone had one, whether it was the library that went wrong or the Olympic Stadium that went over budget. I said, ‘Okay, great, can anyone here tell me a project that went right?’ Nobody. Yet if you take the London Olympics, the build came in a few months early and under budget, but nobody thinks about that because that doesn’t become a story. This atmosphere makes it understandable that the public sector sometimes is cautious.

This means that you need to reduce that perception of risk around your company by showing what you’ve done before. The is the real problem for startups is getting these credentials, because the big guys who have been doing it for years and doing it badly still have more credentials. The new guys look like a risk.

The best advice is pair up, swallow your pride and do the project with the large consultancy company that has been doing this for years. Then go back to public sector buyers and show them how you did that better and how you were the difference between them versus someone else making it work. This should only be a starting point and you should move away from this as quickly as possible. Use your newly acquired credentials to go off and do your own thing.

Aside from that risk aversion, what difficulties can they expect to encounter?

There are lots of things that happen in extremis, you can have a sudden change of the economy or political circumstance which means long promised initiatives don’t happen. It is worth stressing that that is the nature of this particular industry. The plus side is that public sector customers, when you do get them, are fantastic reference customers. If you’ve got HMRC or the Treasury as a customer, banks will talk to you because these are organisations that have the same reputational, security, and data concerns. They also tend to be quite loyal and work with you again and again. I think that the public sector is an interesting set of customers to have with lots of different problems but lots of benefits.

Are there any schemes, policies or organisations that can help companies in Civtech?

What I think is interesting at the moment is that it looks a bit like where FinTech was to the banking industry six or seven years ago. They were equally skeptical that small companies could be relied upon to do anything important and tried to build their own solutions. Government is at that stage but they’re moving out of that and the first sign is that they are aware they have problems. There’s an increasing number of organisations, networks and forums where mostly public sector members talk to each other and try to share best practice. When we’ve seen that before that tends to be the precursor to them saying, ‘Actually we’ve all got the same problems. Let’s go and see if we can procure that from the outside and talk to a few of these new companies.’

The Digital Leaders Group is a really good forum for sharing best practice and has some great local government tech people in particular who are trying to do what they can to make their public service delivery better. I think organisations like that are definitely worth tracking.

What’s coming up for the Civtech Forum and Rain Cloud Victoria?

We’ve got four things launching in October. One is about trying to get people to understand where Civtech is and where it’s going, so there will be a pamphlet of short essays by a number of companies and think tank organisations around what Civtech is and it’s potential to improve government. We’re going to run a competition for entrepreneurial students around Civtech to get them to think about taking themselves in this direction. We’re going to launch a training programme for startups and existing small companies who want to start selling to government for the first time about how you do that which we will be recruiting for at the end of this year and launching in spring. We’re also going to have a bit of a party to celebrate the Rain Cloud being open for a year.

Thank you very much for your time. We’ll keep an eye out for these launches.