Governments might just be startups’ least favourite customers. They’re known to be slow on making decisions and risk averse. But they’ve got to unlock some of the tech advances used in the private sector if we’re going to tackle huge problems like climate change.
London-based startup Apolitical is taking an interesting twist on helping governments level up with tech: they’re building a learning platform for government employees. A key focus is climate change; the team is building courses on things like net zero, decarbonising buildings, pricing carbon and carbon sequestration.
“On their smartphones, public servants can find the best restaurant on the other side of the world or easily learn how to code with an online course, but they couldn't find out the best approach to a new policy which might cost millions of dollars or impact millions of peoples lives,” says cofounder Robyn Scott.
Scott and her cofounder, Lisa Witter, have just raised a £5m Series A round, led by Systemiq Capital and Perivoli Innovations and including participation from View Different and Kevin Efrusy, who was the lead investor Accel’s legendary bet on Facebook.
Any public servant, anywhere in the world, can sign up for free to use Apolitical
Apolitical is part of a growing number of companies building products and services for governments — a sector known as govtech. Govtech accelerator and investor PUBLIC puts the size of the global govtech market at €411bn, roughly the size of the global accounting market.
Covid-19 has accelerated collaboration between startups and governments, and over three-quarters of European startups surveyed by PUBLIC in 2021 said the govtech sector in their country was growing rapidly or very rapidly.
“Any public servant, anywhere in the world, can sign up for free to use Apolitical, and once they’re on the platform they can share and discover best practice,” says Scott.
People share information through articles, Q&As and online conversations. The platform makes money from short, proprietary courses. The platform is used by 150,000 public servants across 160 countries.
The climate crisis
They’re already seeing success. One European country reviewed and reworked its whole climate strategy to incorporate a list put together on Apolitical of the 100 most impactful climate policies globally.
“The climate is now every public servant's problem and every public servant's opportunity,” says Scott.
“We're also building or planning courses on issues that intersect with climate including climate and equity, climate and mental health, low carbon agriculture and the circular economy.”
Reverse policy innovation
Scott’s determined that the platform should facilitate an equal exchange of knowledge between different parts of the world — and not turn into the global north exporting policies to the global south.
“Policy made under conditions of constraints, which you get more of in poorer countries, can often be much more innovative,” she says.
One of Scott’s favourite examples is from Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the 1990s. The city introduced a policy that allowed its inhabitants to vote on where its budget should be spent. It’s a policy now used in 12,000 locations around the world. Paris, for example, wants to have 25% of the city’s spend from now until 2026 decided with the input of Parisians.
Our mission is all about helping build 21st-century governments that work for people and the planet
“The direct benefits are obvious — governments spend money on what's most useful to people,” says Scott. “There are also important indirect benefits, including helping to build trust in government.”
Another example is Bhubaneswar in India, where they involved children in redesigning public spaces to maximise their safety, a strategy now being taken up in other places around the world.
From coronavirus to the war in Ukraine
When a crisis happens, the platform is quick to see public servants seeking and sharing ideas on how to respond.
It happened in the first half of 2020 when the pandemic began and it’s happening now with the invasion of Ukraine, Scott says. In particular, they’ve seen public servants sharing information on how to help refugees fleeing the country.
The platform can also help individuals who are tasked with changing department and brief — something that happens regularly in government. “You might move from the health department to the education department, and now you have to wrap your head around a new set of challenges.”
“Our mission,” Scott summarises, “is all about helping build 21st-century governments that work for people and the planet.”