Taking digital seriously


Why does the Government take digital seriously? Government Chief Information Officer Barry Lowry outlines the impact of advancing digital government services and the quantifiable progress made against the eGovernment Action Plan in the last year.

If like me, you are a soccer fan, you will no doubt have read some of the perennial post-season analysis, jubilation and recrimination. In the English Premiership for example, Huddersfield Town avoiding relegation has been recognised as a huge achievement, while Chelsea will (probably) sack their manager for finishing in fifth place, despite having won the title last year and silverware this season. Likewise, many are even suggesting Manchester United’s second place finish is a dismal failure. As an avid Tottenham Hotspur fan, I am amused at the divided opinion on whether our team is going forwards or has peaked, despite three top four finishes in a row.

People may not be aware, but there are several league tables which rank countries’ digital capability. The European Commission for example, publish the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which is probably the one that we in Ireland pay most attention to. DESI, according to the Commission, “is a composite index that summarises relevant indicators on Europe’s digital performance and tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness”. In the 2018 survey, only recently published, Ireland climbed two places to sixth place out of the 28 member states plus Iceland, Norway and Turkey (see https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/desi).

Just like fans of the English Premier League, we can either take great pride in our performance, beating the likes of Germany, France and the UK and scoring more points than our 2017 precedent, or we can question why, given our available talent and tech base, we are behind countries of similar size (or smaller), such as Denmark, Finland and Luxembourg.

One might of course question whether this is even important. However, the World Economic Forum has stated that Digital and ICT are key factors in driving job creation and GDP growth. Furthermore, the EU has not only predicted that the Digital Single Market (DSM) – effectively a strategy to facilitate pan-European trade without borders – could contribute up to €415 billion per year and hundreds of thousands of new jobs to the EU economy, but has also stated that Governments can drive the DSM by being strong exemplars in the delivery of digital services. So, if we accept the thesis that a nation with strong digital government is well placed to become economically stronger, and we accept Peter Drucker’s view that, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”, then the DESI Index not only provides a reasonable indication of what we do well and where there is room for improvement, but is something we should take seriously.

Successive Irish governments have demonstrated that they do take ICT and Digital seriously; the establishment of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer in 2013 and the creation of an eGovernment Ministerial portfolio in 2016, being two pertinent examples.

In July last year, the current eGovernment Minister, Patrick O’Donovan TD, published Ireland’s eGovernment Strategy 2017-2020 (see http://egovstrategy.gov.ie/), which closely aligns to the EU eGovernment Action Plan and sets out ten key actions to drive digital government services. One year on, the progress is as follows:

1. Digital Service Gateway

Against an ambition to provide citizens and businesses with a similar quality of user experience as offered by the best of the retail and banking sectors, the launch of our Digital Services Gateway (www.gov.ie) represented a good start. We now have Government services sign-posted for easy access and we aim to enhance the site over the next several months including a single sign-on capability.

2. We will maintain an overall Digital Programme plan 
overseen by our eGovernment Minister

The first action of the ‘Our Public Service 2020’ document (http://ops2020.gov.ie/) is to “Accelerate Digital Delivery of Services”. We are now extending our delivery programme across the wider Public Service to ensure that the most used digital services are also the most accessible and intuitive.

3. We will develop our existing e-ID capability

One of the areas that DESI (rightly) highlights as one for improvement is pre-filled forms. We frustrate our citizens by asking them to provide information that they have previously provided several times. Indeed, the concept of ‘once only’ was a key principle of the Tallinn declaration, signed by EU Ministers last October. Obviously, we cannot pre-fill an online form without being absolutely certain that the person accessing the service is who they claim to be. This is why MyGovID, the Irish Government’s e-ID system is so valuable. Being underpinned by the Public Service Card/SAFE 2 application process, we have a very robust means to protect our citizens against online fraud and personation when using Government digital services. Consequently, the considerable increases in PSC and MyGovID uptake is gratifying for all concerned.

4. We will develop similar plans to facilitate business and location identification

The Eircode is now widely used and we are making good progress in establishing a means to join up business data.

One might of course question whether this is even important. However, the World Economic Forum has stated that Digital and ICT are key factors in driving job creation and GDP growth.

5. We will enhance our data-sharing capability

If we are to deliver true ‘once only’ for citizens and businesses, then we need to cease having separate data holdings for every Government service and move to sharing key data sets transparently and in line with GDPR. Ultimately, we should move to single registers of data that can be appropriate accessed where permissible to do so. We are currently developing a strategy for doing this.

6. We will introduce legislation to support our data-sharing ambitions

Our Data-Sharing and Governance Bill, which provides for the regulation and governance of data-sharing between Public Service Bodies, will hopefully be passed into law this year.

7. We will continue to develop our Open Data portal

Ireland has fully committed to maximising the value of open data to commerce and society. It is therefore extremely pleasing that DESI recognises Ireland as the top EU country in this area. Obviously, we can improve further and will therefore continue to engage with key stakeholders and seek to increase the quantity and quality of the material we make available.

8. We will transform our ‘back office’

Each department and public body running its own infrastructure makes data sharing more problematic and is neither energy efficient nor best use of effort and resources. We are therefore progressing our infrastructure sharing and combining that with plans for greater use of public cloud.

9. We will ensure appropriate governance is in place

We now have a strong governance model to help ensure that our data is managed securely, our services are joined-up appropriately and we maximise the efficacy of our investments through sound stewardship of projects and avoidance of duplication.

10. We will ensure our people have the skills and capabilities to help us move forward

This is another DESI key improvement area and we are co-ordinating plans to ensure service leaders, providers, developers and users have the necessary training and confidence in the use of digital.

To conclude, therefore, while we continue to move in the right direction in the EU digital league, our skills, agility and our technical base mean that we should be focused on at least top three. It is a pleasure to work for an administration with that scale of ambition.

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