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Bring the tech magic to public services – Latest City A.M. column by Seven Hills co-founder Michael Hayman

The following article from Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M.

It’s rare to find an optimistic headline about the NHS these days.

The beloved national institution turned 70 this year, and while there has been a smattering of celebratory, reflective features, the headlines still profess doom and gloom for the future.

Last week, the chair of the Royal College of GPs sounded the warning klaxon, suggesting that patients will leave the NHS in droves because of increasing waiting times. Meanwhile, national health service supplier Spire issued a profit warning, citing NHS belt-tightening as the culprit, causing its shares to tumble.

If you are looking for a villain in the plot, the private sector is a popular one. And sometimes with good reason. Few will see the likes of Carillion as great examples of the market at work. More a state-subsidised giant than a private challenger, acting as a public monopoly in all but name. And even with this tremendous advantage, still unable to balance its books.
Yet to dismiss the idea of the private sector as a positive, transformative force for public services is to miss out on the possibility of real innovation for the future.

The government is already a major customer of the private sector and there is great opportunity as a result. Perhaps the issue though is that we have not yet seen enough of the right type of private sector at work with the state.

The government needs to dig deeper into the entrepreneurial economy to tap into this country’s real potential.

Just look at the tech sector – filled with bright and inquiring minds, so often driven by an ambition to improve the world.

If this talent serves only to find ways to get pizzas to our doors more quickly, it will have been a poor realisation of its progressive power. That’s the view of Daniel Korski, and he should know – the former Number 10 adviser has turned technologist and founded Public, a venture capital firm for helping tech startups transform public services.

And he’s not the only one. In fact, this thinking has led to the emergence of “GovTech”, which seeks to innovate public services with state-of-the-art technology.

Think about bringing the power of a platform like Uber to the delivery of social services to the elderly – knowing exactly who carers are and when they will arrive would alleviate anxiety among our most vulnerable.

Indeed, the tired legacy systems of the NHS are the perfect platform for the UK’s technologists to show what they’re made of.

This could be British tech’s Heineken moment: to refresh the parts of the economy that others cannot reach, putting the weight of innovation and agile thinking into one of the country’s knottiest problems.

Now is the perfect time: with avowed tech enthusiast Matt Hancock as the new health secretary, a £20bn funding boost, and a tech-focused agenda as a major part of the solution.

We’ve already had a taste of what could be, with the likes of Babylon Health’s subscription healthcare platform using artificial intelligence to take the pressure off GPs and A&E services, with virtual consultations via text and video messaging. But there’s so much more to come.

Entrepreneurs often talk about the importance of having a big problem to solve in driving innovation. Could there be a bigger problem than the UK’s overburdened public services?

It doesn’t end with the NHS. There are swathes of services crying out for a touch of tech magic.

Even the long-privatised rail network is under pressure to work with the country’s brightest tech minds. Transport minister Jo Johnson last week called for greater collaboration between tech firms and rail companies, using transparent data to make trains more reliable.

And of course, there’s a Brexit angle to all this. We’ve heard much made of the promise of the Brexit dividend, but little evidence of the reality of what it might be. Some of the answer might lie in the renewal of our public services and the nascent possibilities of GovTech.

With considerations for the Autumn Budget already underway, the government has the opportunity to send an all-important signal about what sort of future it sees for us. Analogue or digital. VHS or Betamax. This is one area where its decision will have very real consequences for what happens next.

If we can get the investment right and ensure that the UK has the digital infrastructure necessary to empower our greatest innovators, we’ll have the ingredients needed to become a foremost digital nation.

And crucially, we’ll give our public services, the NHS first and foremost among them, the tools they need to deliver the world-leading care – the kind that makes headlines for all of the right reasons.

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