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Boosting government efficiency via tech

Can governments be run more efficiently? Yes, say founders of a new wave of start-ups that are helping municipal agencies make better use of the vast stores of data locked away in obscure government databases.

Boosting government efficiency via tech
Nils Zimmermann


Mike Wedel is a senior administrator for the municipality of Oranienburg, a town north of central Berlin in the state of Brandenburg. His job is to coordinate the activities of the town’s various services — the street cleaning, schools, kindergartens, registries and so on.

The mayor and town council decide on priorities; Wedel makes sure the services decided on are delivered. That means making sure the town has enough staff, buildings, and equipment in the right quantities, the right places, at the right times. To do that, he told DW, “We need a lot of data. For example, if we want to know how many kindergarten minders to hire over the next couple of years, and whether we need additional buildings, we want to know how many families with small kids are registering in the municipality, what the kids’ ages are, and where they live, so we can plan what we’ll need.”

Municipalities have a great deal of data stored on their computers, Wedel explained, but the data are siloed in different places, in different Excel tables used by different teams or departments, or in other databases of specialised, task-specific programmes. This makes it hard to connect the dots and get a full picture of how the different programmes, resources and planning requirements of the municipality relate to each other. That’s why for the past year, Mike Wedel has been collaborating with a Berlin-based start-up called Polyteia, which claims it can solve this problem for him.

Drawing together disparate data

Polyteia specialises in helping municipal governments mine the storehouses of data in their scattered databases, and weave them into a useful, accessible whole, with a user interface that allows city administrators and elected officials to find the information they need easily and quickly, in formats that include visualisations and critical outputs.

Creating these interfaces isn’t rocket science, as Polyteia founder Faruk Tuncer admits. It’s simply a matter of deep-diving into the work processes and disparate databases typically employed in German municipal administrations.

Polyteia’s software is still in development. It cannot simply be downloaded and be instantly ready to use, nor will that likely be the case in future. Polyteia staff have to sit down with a municipality’s administrators to understand their requirements, assess the jumble of existing databases, and fine-tune Polyteia’s standard user interfaces to the individual case. But, as Tuncer told DW, “there are strong similarities between different municipalities and their needs — all of them except the tiniest hamlets administer schools and day-care centres, for example,” and so Polyteia’s basic packages can be readily fine-tuned to individual municipalities with a moderate amount of effort.

Polyteia isn’t the only start-up working on improving the efficiency of agencies by providing novel software. There’s a whole new industry emerging dedicated to just that. It goes by the jargon term “GovTech”. There was a one-day GovTech Summit held in Paris in Nov 2019, which attracted luminaries like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with crowds of start-up entrepreneurs and bureaucrats.

It does seem plausible there’s plenty of scope for GovTech start-ups to help governments improve their decision-making and efficiency. May a thousand start-ups bloom. As ever, most will fade away, and a useful few will endure.

— Nils Zimmermann is a freelance business writer for Deutsche Welle

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