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Digital Ireland: Advancing the agenda

Digital government in Ireland has undergone considerable transformation through the implementation of its Public Service ICT and eGovernment strategies. Ciarán Galway engages with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) to discuss the progress of this evolution with Barry Lowry.

Now in his fifth year as Government CIO, Lowry is pleased with Ireland’s direction of travel in digital government. Most notably, since first speaking with eolas magazine about the Digital Service Gateway concept upon his appointment 2016, Ireland’s Government Portal (gov.ie) has come to fruition and is receiving significant traffic, over 200,000 visits and half a million hits per day during April.

Government portal

The development of a Digital Service Gateway as a one-stop platform for citizens is a major component of the Public Service ICT Strategy’s ‘Build to Share’ pillar as well as a key action within the eGovernment Strategy 2017-2020. For example, the eGovernment strategy emphasises the need for a high quality and secure citizen experience, available through a simple user interface.

gov.ie is a central portal that provides online access to government services and information. By combining information across government departments and public bodies, it aims to provide user-orientated interaction and to present information in a clear, understandable and accessible manner. Today, citizens can utilise these services using a verified MyGovID account, applying the ‘tell us once’ principle.

“All the evidence that we’ve accumulated indicates that more people are visiting the portal site and are staying for longer, which are good metrics of its success. In addition, we also sought customer feedback, undertaking interview sessions within one of the government departments.

“We interviewed people and directed them to attempt certain transactions, firstly on the old site and then on the new one. They all agreed that the new site was much easier to navigate. When we migrate content onto the new site, we take care to simplify it and collaborate with departments to do that,” explains Lowry, adding: “Needless to say, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Gov.ie has been an excellent focus for both government communications and those wishing to access information on any aspect of the Government’s response from health to welfare and for making offers of help.”

Observing the tangible uptake in engagement, the Government CIO expresses an ambition to enhance the quality and basic functionality on the site itself in 2020.

Digital public services

A second key area of progress has been the observable increase in the figures for digital public services transactions. The eGovernment Strategy seeks to use digitisation to improve efficiency, transparency and flexibility of public services and there are now over 600,000 verified MyGovID accounts.

To consolidate this, at the end of 2019, the Government indicated its desire to accelerate the digitalisation of public services over the course of 2020. “We have a commitment from government that this will happen. We also have a commitment to push as hard as we can to move towards 90 per cent of transactions being consumed as opposed to simply being available online by the end of 2023,” Lowry outlines.

Specifically, the Government’s Digital Agenda for the Public Service provides several objectives for public bodies to pursue. These include:

• ensuring the most used services are used digitally as opposed to simply being available online;

• ensuring all digital services have the same look and feel, are understandable and easy to use; and

• ensuring all services are developed in an inclusive, transformational, user-driven and mobile-centric fashion.

The Government CIO believes that a significant factor behind growing uptake and use of MyGovID is an increasing public appreciation of the value proposition. “We’re starting to see citizens understand and value this process and it’s beginning to feel like we’re being pushed by the public to do things faster.

“One of the things that we’ve agreed to explore, with the Government’s permission, is the increasingly regularity of people asking government if they can use their personal credentials, such as the Public Services Card, to do things like open a bank account. For instance, rather than present a utilities bill, a citizen could simply tell the bank that their identity is already government verified or answer questions in a GDPR compliant manner,” he states.

This assertion is supported by a recent European Commission special Eurobarometer survey, conducted in December 2019, which found that Europeans are willing to share their personal information to improve public services. Europe’s Digital Future measured attitudes towards the impact of digitalisation on the daily lives of EU27 and UK citizens.

A total of 76 per cent of Irish respondents indicated that it would be very useful (28 per cent) or quite useful (48 per cent) to have a secure single digital ID that could serve for all (public and private) online services and give control over the use of data. Indeed, this figure is higher than the EU average.

“We are very much attempting to respond to the public’s digital agenda as well as that of the Government. If citizens have a clear preference for how they want to interact with Government in digital Ireland then where we can facilitate it, we will do so. We’re attempting to illustrate what this will look like before opening it to public consultation,” Lowry says.

At the same time, he emphasises the impact of initiatives undertaken by individual ministers. For instance, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone’s decision to launch the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) primarily as a MyGovID-enabled digital application. A subsequent media campaign encouraged parents to obtain a verified MyGovID to access the NCS in the “fastest, most user-friendly way”.

In many respects, Lowry feels that this was an ideal match of government initiative and target audience, in that it used digital to meet the needs of one of the demographics most in favour of digital government solutions.

Data sharing

Another milestone on the wider digital government journey was the enactment of the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019. This legislation provides a generalised legal basis for data sharing between public bodies and simultaneously establishes appropriate safeguards for such sharing to occur. This, Lowry contends, is crucial to the expansion of the digital delivery of services and, through a reduction in duplication, the enhanced efficiency of public bodies.

“With the Public Service Data Strategy 2019-2023 also agreed at the beginning of 2019, we now have permission to recruit people to enact the legislation. This is a big business project but also a significant technical project as well. The early wins will be a Data Dictionary and the newly planned MyData Portal.

“Cognisant of GDPR, the MyData Portal will be a gateway for citizens to access their government credentials and data. This will demonstrate our transparency and to enhance understanding of this, we will move towards the data registries. This will be a long journey of change as we rethink our data stewardship. The key is that we now have the legislative underpinning alongside cross-Civil Service support for the direction of travel. We’re all working together to evolve this,” he stresses.

Open Data is a critical element of the Public Service ICT Strategy and, as a result, wider public service reform. Amid enhanced eGovernment and data analytics, Open Data’s objective is to deliver economic, social and democratic benefits through the access, reuse and distribution of data held by public bodies.

For three consecutive years, Ireland has been successful in retaining its status as the most mature open data country in Europe. “What we’re really striving to do in 2020 is to understand the value of this data and get our indigenous companies involved and develop understanding that if we invest more the potential impact for them.

“We’re pursuing this engagement and exploring what happens in terms of open data and incubators. We are conducting some interesting work with Science Foundation Ireland to garner this insight,” says Lowry.

Figure 1

GovTech Action Plan

1. Government should seek to facilitate the re-use of government assets where lawful and feasible.

2. Government should review the government business development funding frameworks to identify any gaps or opportunities for further cohesion, with a view to reviewing how the model can be better communicated to, and understood by, its target audience.

3. Government should develop a more cohesive life-long digital talent development model covering all life stages, from pre-school age to retirement and all levels of competence from service user, to systems developer and systems architect.

4. Government should seek to develop procurement solutions, which fully comply with EU legislation, to enable easier access for new market entrants to conduct business with Government.

5. Government should drive GovTech by being an exemplar in the delivery of digital services, the continuous development of employee skills and the adoption of innovation.

6. Government should actively engage with all sectors of society to ensure GovTech is fully inclusive and addresses the main societal obstacles to digital participation.

7. Government should create an appropriate GovTech governance structure.

8. Government should create a GovTech branding model, which will be available to all contributors.

GovTech

Discussing the correlation between digital government and a successful digital economy, the Government CIO contends that a clear link exists. “While partly reputational, this is because it encourages citizens to do more online. The OECD, the UN and others have highlighted that the most successful digital economies are also the best at digital government. This is evident in Denmark, Estonia, Sweden and Singapore,” he says, suggesting: “The next stage for us is to understand how to use government assets and government requirements to grow intellectual property rights [or IPR] in this country. When the new eGovernment Minister assumes office, one of the first things that I will be doing with them is taking them through the GovTech initiative.”

GovTech is the application of emerging technologies to deliver enhanced public services through increased efficiency and reduced cost. Applying this concept through collaboration with government, an ecosystem comprising start-ups, established indigenous companies and multinationals works to understand and develop solutions for public sector challenges.

The GovTech report is the product of a day-long workshop with a cross-interest group which included academia, multinationals and start-ups. It contains eight recommendations for a GovTech ecosystem in Ireland (see figure 1). The overarching ambition is to establish Ireland firstly, as the best place in Europe to transact digitally with Government and secondly, as the best place in Europe to be part of a tech start-up.

“The idea is that we put challenges in the ecosystem and help fund the delivery of solutions. If it appeared that we could make a solution work, we would effectively be building IPR that could read across into other EU countries. You cannot drag and drop everything because the legislative aspects of what we actually do are different, but you can get a degree of similarity in the process of opening a bank account or applying for welfare across jurisdictions,” Lowry notes.

The Government CIO also believes that another important opportunity of Ireland’s GovTech project is its national orientation rather than confinement to Dublin. “The National Broadband Plan will increase connectivity, so how do we exploit that and unlock the indigenous start-up capability? If you examine any of the Government’s policy areas, from housing to climate action, having people work close to where they live is very important. Through technology we can begin to better manage work and where work takes place,” he adds.

“We are very much attempting to respond to the public’s digital agenda as well as that of the Government. If citizens have a clear preference for how they want to interact with Government in digital Ireland then where we can facilitate it, we will do so.”

Culture

While overall, in terms of digital, Ireland is performing well, Lowry acknowledges a clear lag in the provision of public services. “We have found ourselves in a culture where people have become accustomed to accessing services in a particular way. This may not the best or most efficient way to either provide or access a service. People should not have to take leave to access a government service – they should be able to do so at their convenience,” Lowry asserts.

Relative to culture, he reasons, technology is a secondary component of digital transformation. “While almost invariably, technology can help, the OECD definition maintains that eGovernment is about putting a digital front-end on what you’ve always done, whereas digital government is about rethinking what you’ve always done, because the technology is available. It’s making the cultural leap and consciously deciding to set aside the traditional process and instead talk to the public in order to reimagine a better process for the future.

“This is a challenge and while we have started undertaking this progressively, we have now committed to building innovation capability within the Civil Service and creating labs where can test initiatives. While this is positive, we must drive outcomes to showcase that it is worthwhile,” he says.

ICT Apprenticeship Scheme

ICT professionalisation is another challenge on the journey to establishing Ireland as a digital leader. Any Irish organisation, including Civil Service departments and offices, engaged in digital transformation, especially in the Greater Dublin Area, is faced with substantial talent management challenges.

As such, in 2019 the Government announced a specific ICT Apprenticeship Scheme in conjunction with Fastrack to IT (FIT). The ambition is that the apprenticeships will go some way to addressing staffing needs.

“There are 34 apprentices passing out of this scheme and we are meeting with FIT to discuss adjustments to its next iteration. Another approach we are taking is to offer our internal staff an opportunity to retrain and work in technology, digital or data analytics.

“That is a simple logic stemming from the OECD statement that AI could likely retire around 14 per cent of jobs. This creates an opportunity for us and will mean that less people are consumed with administration of public services. Those people can then work on the design of services, including the collation of feedback. Overall, this means better quality jobs for the Civil Service, as well as increasing the talent pool,” Lowry suggests.

Vision

Looking ahead, the Government CIO’s ambitions for the next five to 10 years are framed in the context of providing over 90 per cent of public services digitally with a complete rethink of those which are yet to be delivered digitally. This means in a manner that is more suitable for the public and those who need access to services most. “It becomes much more about managing the digital divide more proactively by ensuring that everyone gets involved,” says Lowry, adding: “For instance, if you cannot complete a transaction yourself because you lack the necessary technology or understanding, then you can attend an advice or help centre where they will walk through the process. People should not be excluded from the journey, but instead helped to manage it.”

A new National Digital Strategy is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach, which will holistically address the entire digital ecosystem. This is likely to be further developed in recognition of the many changes necessitated by the events of the last couple of months.

“I would like to see Ireland recognised for some of the initiatives undertaken here, perhaps through our GovTech. We have some brilliant ideas in our start-ups, we need to turn those into sustainable products and delivery streams. I also want to establish an environment whereby we create a safe data ecosystem which benefits our citizens and businesses alike,” Lowry concludes.

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