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How to set up your own GovTech Catalyst

It’s been a year since we announced the GovTech Catalyst and in that time we’ve had a great response to our aim of finding innovative fixes for public sector problems.

So far, we’ve run 6 challenges and received more than 270 applications from private sector tech firms, with 90% from small and medium size enterprises.

We’ve learned a lot over the past year and we’re often asked by other government departments to share what we’ve found. So if you want to explore and investigate innovative solutions to problems at low cost before you procure a solution, here are our top 5 tips for setting up your own catalyst.

Set your goals

The first thing you have to be clear on is what problem are you trying to solve by setting up a catalyst. It’s important to have a problem-led approach rather than a technology one. For example, you should focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, rather than how can a specific technology can solve your problem.

The GovTech Catalyst model is for you if you want to partner with emerging technology or innovation focused companies to research and test solutions. It focuses on things actually getting delivered in an environment where it’s genuinely possible to fail fast.

On the other hand, if you want to challenge the culture of your organisation and foster intrapreneurship, a model like the DfT Lab would be useful.

The two models are quite different, but equally successful at delivering their intended outcomes. When you're clear on what you want to achieve it will be clear which model to pick.

Grow your team

Once you know your model, you need to think carefully about the size, shape and skill set of the team. This has been one of the most challenging aspects of running the GovTech Catalyst.  We’re currently a small team of 7 people, but we initially underestimated the amount of administration work needed to run the challenge process and set up the competitions.

At its peak, we'll be running 15 projects at the same time - so having identified the increased workload, we expanded the team and changed our approach.

We now have more engagement leads and take an account management approach. Each challenge team knows exactly who their point of contact is here at the Government Digital Service and we have a more sustainable model for the future.  

Set timelines

Because of the way we’re funded our timeline is non-negotiable. We launch a challenge a month, so we’ve not had as much time as we'd like to reflect on our learnings and figure out how we can improve the process.

When your department is setting up a catalyst for the first time, it’s important to start small, factor in time to learn and then scale up.

An image that says: Testing technology that could roll out across the public sector", with GovTech Catalyst written below.

Tell people about your catalyst

You’ll get better quality applications for your funding if you promote your catalyst effectively to the right audiences.

The public sector is complex and can be hard to navigate, so we put our efforts into communicating with cross-government communities instead of relying on senior leaders to cascade information through their organisations.

We focused on how and where we engaged with people and spoke at a wider range of events. This takes time and effort, but it’s well worth the investment.

We’re also continually learning and changing how we talk about the fund. For example, we received fewer applications in rounds 2 and 3 than we did in the first round - however the quality of the applications increased.

This shows we’re being clearer on what makes a suitable GovTech challenge and how many people and resources the challenge-owning organisation needs to commit. It also means we’re not wasting anyone's time with fruitless bids.

Know what good looks like

We iterated our evaluation criteria between rounds 1 and 2. The first round was heavily focused on the return on investment. For example we asked, “How much money would we save the taxpayer if we invested £1.25 million in your challenge?”

This was a good thing to consider as solutions have to be affordable. But we believe you cannot accurately predict this value until you know what the solution is and how much it will cost.

So we iterated our challenge selection criteria. Applicants must now show how well they understand the problem and convince us there’s no existing products they could use instead. 

GovTech Catalyst in the future

The 5 challenges selected in round 3 will be announced in January 2019 bringing the total number of challenges to 15.

There’s a lot of interest in the results of the first phases of experimentation as well as what the future holds for the GovTech Catalyst.

What we do know - and what we’ve proven - is there’s quite an appetite in the public and private sectors to work in this way to explore innovative solutions to make services better for users.

We’re looking forward to continuing to learn, iterate and share our findings.

If your department has recently set up an innovation catalyst or plans to, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share ours, so please get in touch.

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