Solving an unsolvable problem: Our GovTech experience

Monmouthshire Rural Transport

Written by Cath Fallon, Head of Enterprise and Community Development Monmouthshire County Council and Digital Leaders 100 Welsh Local Champion

When my colleagues and I first heard about some funding from UK Government to work with the private sector to explore how digital technology could solve problems for which no solution existed, our initial thoughts were – ‘Well we’re always up for a challenge!’ And Gov Tech Catalyst is exactly that – a Challenge fund. The £20M fund, established by the Cabinet Office with support from Innovate UK, seeks to incentivise tech companies to develop solutions to public sector challenges by bidding for an initial £50k to create truly innovative digital solutions and a further £500k to test and prototype them.

In our case the challenge we identified was ‘How do we employ digital technology to address loneliness and public transport issues in a rural area with broadband connectivity issues?’ The challenge for the private sector was how they could develop a brand new solution without repackaging one they already had. I guess this could also be considered a slightly controversial approach i.e. employing a digital solution to solve loneliness, yet we truly believe that technology has a big part to play in societal change if developed alongside an understanding of what really matters to people.

“In the last few decades, loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic. More and more of us live alone. We work at home more. We spend a greater part of our day alone than we did 10 years ago. It sometimes feels like our best friend is the smartphone.” (Age UK).

There is a myth out there that the public sector is nervous of working with the private sector. This myth is amplified in the private sector, who may believe that not only does the public sector not want to work with the private sector to solve problems but that we also don’t understand the issues of working in a competitive environment. We’re happy to report that none of these myths are true and the Gov Tech process has helped us prove this.

In Monmouthshire, like many local authorities, we have previously purchased software packages to solve problems but those software package always came with a whole heap of other ‘stuff’ that we don’t want and never use. In fact, probably over 70% of the cost spent on solving a problem can be wasted, a bit like your washing machines at home I guess, there are probably 15 different programmes to use but if you’re anything like me you only use two of them!

It took a couple of iterations of our ‘problem’ before we got it right – we did this by working with the guys at Government Digital Service (GDS) to refine our thoughts and with our private sector colleagues to specify the type of digital solution we are looking for. We’ve also listened to our communities as there is little point in GDS spending £1.25M of public sector funds to come up with a digital solution that our communities do not want or cannot use. Like other rural counties, we have pockets of digital deprivation in Monmouthshire, along with an ageing population, many with digital literacy issues – we therefore don’t want a company to come up with a digital solution that a) cannot be connected b) cannot be used by the people who may need it most.

We are currently half way through the process. We have completed Phase 1 which attracted interest from over 100 companies and with help and advice from the GDS team and Innovate UK, we now have five potential digital projects that could help solve our loneliness and public transport solution. However under Phase 2 we have to whittle this down to two companies, each of whom will win £500k to develop a bespoke product for our communities. Ideas so far have included a community driven digital platform that enables people to have real time conversations; using digital

technology to identify opportunities for people to engage in the community via digital and non- digital means; tackling loneliness head on by providing a transport platform and communications system to manage mobility ‘as-a-service’; a digital “buddying” service that brings together socially isolated individuals via a range of communication channels; and a mobility ecosystem to address local transport needs, tackle rural isolation and a lack of accessibility. So far so good and we’re looking forward to seeing what Phase 2 brings – I’ll let you know how we get on! For further information visit us here.

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