Government CIO Barry Lowry: A digital leader
Following the publication of Harnessing Digital: The Digital Ireland Framework, the new national digital strategy, and Connecting Government 2030, the new Public Service digital and ICT strategy, Barry Lowry reflects on his time heading up the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) to date and discusses his continued ambition for Ireland’s digital journey.
Remarking on the distance already travelled on Ireland’s digital journey, Lowry emphasises the acceleration which took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, when the public service embarked upon the journey in 2015, Ireland’s government services portal, gov.ie, did not even exist; by 2020 it had 100 million visits. Likewise, in 2016 there were just over 8,000 verified MyGovID accounts; today, over 1.5 million Irish adults have verified accounts.
“Now we have built the foundations for change, we must implement the big changes. Through the new strategy, we have a plan for how we are going to do that,” he observes.
Looking to the consolidation of progress that has been made, Lowry lists two “big changes” the OGCIO will prioritise. Firstly, the delivery of an intuitive, user-driven digital government service whereby 90 per cent of applicable services are consumed online by 2030 and secondly, the launch of a new Life Events Portal.
“We define applicable services as those services which the public values most” the Government CIO explains, adding: “Over the coming weeks, we will consult the public on the services that are most important to them and their experience of these services.
“As we head into what is projected to be a financially constrained environment, we are responding to the public’s priorities, rather than pursuing a programme which attempts to change everything.”
Building on the success of gov.ie, then, the Life Events Portal is set to include births and deaths as the two primary life events, alongside returning to Ireland from abroad, and opening a business. With births and deaths, there are multiple touchpoints with government, local government, the health authorities, and others.
As such, the Life Events Portal is intended to act as a single point of contact to enable individuals to provide information once. After this, each arm of the Public Service will be informed when someone has been born or when someone has died, proactively using this data to align with the services that citizens are entitled to in such circumstances.
“The focus for the initial life events will be birth and bereavement because everyone understands why that is a pressure point, and the fact that, currently, for many, having to stand in an office to complete this process is a frustrating experience. Anything we can do to help people in that regard will be well received,” Lowry asserts.
While a draft National Digital Strategy was prepared in November 2019, ahead of the anticipated change in government, its publication was postponed. Amid prolonged government formation negotiations and the Covid-19 pandemic, a decision was made to reappraise the consultation data informing the strategy.
In February 2022, Harnessing Digital: The Digital Ireland Framework was launched with the objective of establishing Ireland as “a digital leader at the heart of European and global digital developments” across four dimensions: digital transformation of business; digital infrastructure; skills; and digitalisation of public services.
“We agreed that we would totally align it with the EU Digital Compass which has four points: digital government; digital infrastructure; digital skills; and digital business.
“Once we had agreed to adopt that approach, it was relatively easy to take the EU targets and to adapt them for an Irish context. In most cases, we were more ambitious than the EU because the underlying desire has to be for Ireland to be a top-three digital nation.”
We also added an additional section focusing on digital policy and regulation, reflecting the importance of retaining our EU leadership in this space.
“The underlying desire has to be for Ireland to be a top-three digital nation.” – Government CIO Barry Lowry
A top-three digital nation
Outlining the tangible benefits of being a top-three digital nation within the EU, Lowry explains that digital government will be as easily accessible as any other form of service.
“We have demonstrated that we can do this. Through the Covid Tracker App and the Digital Covid Certificate, we have demonstrated that we can build digital services every bit as well as the private sector. That is very encouraging. Now, we need to be as strong in proactive mode as we are in reactive mode.
“This is one of many little steps, or enablers, that will show people that things are happening for the better. We are seeing this in government. The feedback that we are seeing on MyGovID is phenomenal.”
Emphasising the “absolutely critical” role played by government in the acquisition of digital skills, Lowry highlights the commitment contained within EU’s Digital Decade 2030 that 80 per cent of adults will have at least basic digital skills by 2030. This target has been adopted in Harnessing Digital.
“That is something that we must pursue in schools,” he says, adding: “The new Digital Strategy for Schools to 2027 addresses this. It is also about trying to avail of every opportunity which provides people with access to basic skills. Libraries are an obvious area. When we undertook the public consultation for the national digital strategy, what we observed was an eagerness among organisations such as local community groups and GAA clubs to get involved.”
In the context of ongoing talent management challenges and following the successful conclusion of the Government’s first iteration of the ICT Apprenticeship Scheme in conjunction with Fastrack to IT (FIT), a second scheme is set to launch in autumn 2022. Improvements identified by both OGCIO and FIT, as well as the students themselves, will be included in the second iteration, while proof of concept work is also underway for a new retraining pilot scheme for government employees.
“If we are reducing face-to-face services, we are also creating additional capacity in the Public Service and Civil Service. As such, we can aptitude test people who want to inhabit that space, before retraining them to undertake careers in data analytics, IT, and so on.
“We need an academy approach; we need to grow our own talent and there is talent there. There are many people who did not pursue a STEM career, but they have a real talent for business analysis or various IT roles,” Lowry explains.
“For the public to say it trusts what we are doing with its data is really important for us.”
While the digital divide has been accentuated by the pandemic, the Government CIO insists that digital will deliver pervasive benefits across society. “If 90 per cent of people are consuming their government services online, at a time and place of their choosing, we will unlock additional resources to provide a better service to the 10 per cent who continue to consume their services in-person.”
Simultaneously, a subcommittee established by the Sectoral Digital Leaders’ Groups is tasked with scrutinising inclusion and ensuring that public interest in assisted digital can be addressed. “That leaves a very small number who require support through face-to-face interaction. If we can free up resources to give them a better experience, then that is a benefit of digital,” he asserts.
Connecting Government 2030
Published in 2015, the Public Service ICT Strategy aimed to establish the foundations for a effectual digital government ecosystem. It was defined by five key strategic objectives: build to share; digital first; data as an enabler; improve governance; and increase capability.
“Those were the foundations for what we did next,” Lowry explains, pointing to the progress made on gov.ie and MyGovID, the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019 and the Data Strategy, new governance structures and the standardisation of infrastructure and back-office tools across the Public Service.
Prepared by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and published in March 2022, Connecting Government 2030 is the successor to the 2015 strategy. The stated objective of the new digital and ICT strategy for Ireland’s public service is to “enhance Ireland’s reputation as a digital leader”.
Connecting Government 2030 aligns with the digitalisation of public services dimension of the national digital strategy, Harnessing Digital, as we well as the digital targets contained in Civil Service Renewal 2030.
“The Public Service ICT Strategy is a success story, and the next few years will be about becoming a leader in Europe. That is why we have called Connecting Government 2030 a digital and ICT strategy rather than simply an ICT strategy; it is very much about the customer experience and things that matter most to the person in the street,” Lowry outlines.
While commending Ossian Smyth TD as Minister of State with responsibility for Public Procurement and eGovernment, Lowry maintains: “The biggest challenge that we have had – and one appointment has not fixed it – is that several government departments are involved in the digital agenda, and we do not have a Department of Digital Government as such.”
Acknowledging that the current scenario has associated strengths and weaknesses, he suggests that “where there are many moving parts, even with a strong centre, change will not be easy”.
However, implementation of the new national digital strategy and EU obligations will be directed by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment, which is chaired by the Tánaiste. It will also be supported by the Digital Issues Senior Officials’ Group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, and the Digital Single Market Group, chaired by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
From a governance perspective, this represents a major step change. “To now have the Tánaiste as the lead minister for digital is a really powerful statement. I think the Government has handled that bit particularly well. This very much aligns with where Europe is and helps position Ireland to be a leader,” Lowry says.
For OCGIO, there are three immediate priorities for the year ahead. Firstly, 2022 will be defined by the alignment of all data sharing with the Data Sharing and Governance Act. “The Minister has set a target for December 2022, after which all data sharing will be under the auspices of the new Act. This is very powerful because it allows the Minister to direct data sharing as well as permit. That is a big challenge for this year,” Lowry remarks.
“A second ambition for 2022 is getting the first prototype Life Events Portal online and helping people to understand its rationale; and drive improvements to the most popular digital services. We will complete the consultation, establish a list of top 20 or top 30 events, and implement a timeframe to work through those.”
Thirdly, by 2023, Ireland must produce a national plan for the EU’s digital targets for 2030. Lowry is confident that this will happen. “Consider MyGovID, for example,” he begins, “Currently, about 38 per cent of the population have a verified account. One of the things we have to do is notify a version of MyGovID that meets the European standard, but the big focus will be reaching 80 per cent of eligible citizens using MyGovID by 2030.
“While getting from 38 per cent to 80 per cent is a challenge, Ireland is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Therefore, once we begin to open up MyGovID into healthcare and local government, we will get there. There is no doubt about it.”
Having led OGCIO since 2016, one of Lowry’s early ambitions was to build strong relationships between his office, the government departments, the sectors, academia, and industry. “If you talk to any of those groups, that objective has been achieved. We have built proactive relationships with each of those stakeholders and indeed the public. The brand is well known now and is often used in the Oireachtas and elsewhere,” he reflects.
For now, though, he believes that the preeminent obstacles to digital government are still investment orientated. Allied to this is the scale of legacy infrastructure. “If you take something like the concept of a register of names and addresses, it is not going to be easy to get people to stop relying on the ones that are inbuilt in their databases. We have a good workaround in the Single Customer View, but to effectively develop this is a massive and costly challenge. We may well have to be pragmatic about how we do some of those things because the key thing for us is customer experience,” he argues.
However, a recent OECD report, which determined that alongside Denmark, Ireland has one of the most trusted public services in the world, has buoyed Lowry and OGCIO.
“That is very positive. While there has been negative media off and on over the last three years, it has not dulled the public perception that what we are attempting to achieve is in its best interests. We are trying to do so transparently and in line with GDPR. That has provided everyone with a lift. It is real, honest feedback and for the public to say it trusts what we are doing with its data is really important for us,” he concludes.