More and more often, governments are working with start-ups and technology companies to serve their citizens in the digital age as well. Saskia Laseur, civil-law notary and partner at Van Doorne, addresses the legal issues involved in GovTech collaborations.
In the face of the technological storm, governments are struggling with the question of how they can make optimal use of the new digital possibilities. "Governments are increasingly discovering what the market can create," says Saskia Laseur, Van Doorne's specialist in the semi-public sector. "Governments do this by outsourcing demand articulation to start-ups or tech companies, to use them to obtain market expertise. They then switch from a development company to a management organisation, steering for results without having to do the entire implementation themselves."
According to Laseur, setting up a good governance structure is one of the most important aspects of a GovTech collaboration. The division of tasks, the social and financial objectives and accountability are all laid down in this structure. Laseur: "The great thing is that, as a government, you can participate in drawing up these normative frameworks, without taking on liabilities that are not appropriate for a government. You have to hand them over to the entity that is going to operate them. That's why a governance structure is so incredibly important."
For start-ups that are accustomed to working quickly and independently, a governance structure can seem to be a bit of a problem, but according to Laseur things are not so bad in practice. "If you use the expertise of the start-ups in your decisions and if you evaluate the execution immediately, things will go very smoothly. There will only be confusion if these steps are all taken separately from one another."
“For start-ups, it is important that the frameworks set by the government organisation are not too tight”, says Laseur. "The entrepreneur must be given enough freedom and must remain motivated, otherwise you will not achieve your goals. That's part of a very careful decision-making cycle. You have to know exactly what the social and financial objectives are, but also what the risk profile is."
For the government organisation, it is important to clearly define tasks and responsibilities. "Embrace the fact that the market and its innovations can do more than you alone can. This does not mean, however, that the organisation cannot set strict requirements and appoint independent supervisors to ensure that these objectives are achieved on your behalf. Governments, together with start-ups, must set well-adapted objectives, with it being clear who bears the final legal responsibility."
At Wigo4it, government and IT entrepreneurs work together
Van Doorne assisted the four major cities - Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague - in setting up the GovTech cooperation Wigo4it. Wigo4it organises the tenders for the software with which citizens can apply for benefits and organise care. Wigo4it functions as a private company with the government being in charge and formulating objectives. For instance, the budget and the annual plan are determined by the aldermen for social affairs of the four cities, but the implementation lies with the day-to-day management of IT entrepreneurs.
Van Doorne advised on the set up of the governance structure of Wigo4it, such as the establishment of a board of advisors of both civil servants and entrepreneurs. Saskia Laseur: "Our office works for both governments and innovative companies, so we speak the language of the civil servant and the entrepreneur. It's about bringing these two parties together in such a way that the GovTech can become an autonomous management organisation. Wigo4it is a successful example of this."
Airbnb and Uber
According to Laseur, we have entered a phase in which we need to organise innovation in a fundamentally different way. Public and private sectors could do much more together. "Both governments and companies provide services to citizens. You should put the citizen at the centre. Then you would start thinking about common objectives and a professional governance structure."
“Instead of competing with major technology companies such as Airbnb and Uber, governments could benefit from a smart partnership”, says Laseur. "Turn it into a single application in which the government, in cooperation with the large companies, offers mobility solutions or rooms for hire. As a government, this would be better for defining the boundaries, such as excluding or restricting certain areas for room rental. You always work on the basis of the general interest and, ultimately, the citizen is the one who gets the most out of it."