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EXCLUSIVE: Ireland and its digital governance journey

Learnings from other countries, their policies and plans about technology and innovation provides a wide scope of knowledge.

Exploring their best practises, hearing of exisiting expertise they have tapped and initiatives they are currently embarked on are great resources for other countries to adapt and adopt.

OpenGov had the honour of interviewing Barry Lowry, Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Irish Government and got an exclusive insight on the technology and innovation efforts in Ireland.

Barry has been the CIO since April 2016 with the primary task of taking forward the Public Service ICT and eGovernment Strategies. He focused on developing the use of shared services, digital services and data to better serve the people of Ireland and ensure that Ireland is well-placed to benefit from European initiatives such as the Digital Single Market.

Previously the Director for IT Shared Services and Strategy and Head of the IT Profession within the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Barry is deeply involved with the nation’s digital journey.

He has worked in ICT within Government for more than 30 years and has been involved in a host of challenging ICT projects and initiatives including the first Northern Ireland Driver Licensing and Planning Application computer systems, the NI Animal and Public Health Information System and the creation of IT Assist, the award-winning ICT shared service centre for the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Barry’s accolades include being a Fellow of the Irish and British Computer Societies and a former winner of the BCS Northern Ireland IT Professional of the Year. He was awarded an O.B.E. for services to the Northern Ireland Government and the Northern Ireland Computer Industry in 2017.

His wealth of experience and current role make him an ideal resource person for the focus of this article: technology and innovation initiatives rolled out by the Government of Ireland and their future plans.

Latest projects at hand

On current initiatives of the Irish Government, Barry explained that the main focus is on improving the quality of digital services and increasing uptake.

Public consultations and a mystery shopper exercises done in partnership with the Trinity Business School in Dublin have been used to identify areas that require change.

Public sector bodies are included throughout the process and are keen to facilitate the implementation of these initiatives.

Barry added that this approach has garnered positive public feedback on the government’s digital services. Key examples being the online passport renewal, online voter registration and online taxation services.

They have also witnessed higher traffic on the official government portal, a greater use of their Open Data and a significant increase in the number of verified MyGovID electronic ID accounts.

“Ireland has been rated the best country in Europe for Open Data for the last two years.”

Barry talked about plans to introduce new services such as a Digital Postbox which will allow people to access all government communications from one secure place. This platform will come with encrypted storage.

Government agencies will also use Digital Postbox to communicate with people in the safest way possible.

He highlighted one of the government’s biggest successes: The Build to Share initiative. It has seen greater sharing of infrastructures such as networks, data centres and storage.

It uses the same software suite across all government departments and agencies for the purpose of common activities such as ministerial submissions and records management.

Targeted sectors for innovation

Barry explained that the Government of Ireland targets its innovation efforts across all sectors e.g. financial, healthcare, agriculture.

One initiative in the pipeline is the healthcare asector’s proposal to develop a MyGovID for online authentication. They also plan to employ the Digital Postbox for communication, making it easy for citizens to access information on healthcare services.

An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s National Police and Security service, uses the central government’s network infrastructure. It plans to be part of the Irish government’s new State Data Centre project.

Objectives of initiatives

“The objective of these digital government services is to make them easily accessible by users.”

The Digital Portal, for example, lists various categories and themes, such as children services, for users to narrow down their search to their specific focus.

It is a one-stop window for accessing information, allowing for the safer sharing of infrastructure and solutions among various government agencies.

MyGovID provides secure authentication infrastructure for access to services and personal information. It also ensures that citizens do not have to repeatedly provide the same information.

He explained that this reduces administration costs and allows the government to allocate money to enhancing and improving the digital services.

Technologies employed for implementing initiatives

The Irish government employs AI and robotics in its processes and systems for increased efficiency. Additionally, they use business process automation in several areas of work to improve the interface between legacy systems.

Basic AI techniques are also being used to create a better, more intuitive citizen experience with their services.

He confimred that AI algorithms are not been used in areas of policy formulation and decision-making due to the various complexities involved.

A National AI Strategy, which is currently under development, will allow for an integrated, cross-government approach.  This sets out high-level ambitions and directions for research, development and deployment of AI, which includes ethical and regulatory considerations in Ireland.

Barry spoke about government’s use of a private cloud system.

A public cloud system does exist and there are ongoing developments to provide guidance for its deployment, which will be published later this year.

The use of technology has allowed for faster and more convenient processing of online government transactions.

On how they measure the success of the implementation of technology amongst people and businesses, Barry said that customer uptake and satisfaction are the main measures.

Challenges in technology implementation

The priority is ensuring that all projects are lawfully done. The Irish Government aims to not only be an exemplar of a digital government but also of the methods for adopting technology, while complying with legislation.

This would notably be the General Data Protection Regulation, which is mandated across the European Union (EU).

The government recognises that simplifying and consolidating data brings risks in the form of cyber-attacks. As such, they remain committed to investing in protective and defence measures which are internally and externally tested on a regular basis.

He added that the growing use of shared services and approaches has helped in dealing with cyber-risks surrounding government data assets.

The government has developed training and external audit procedures for managing this information. It is also adopting new tools to ensure constant improvements in protection and mitigation services.

At a national level, they had recently established the National Cybersecurity Centre. An upgraded version of their National Cyber-Security Strategy will soon be published.

Ensuring uptake and sustenance of technology

The government engages in active marketing, communications and consulting amongst the people to inform and promote technology uptake. They ran an exercise in 2018, attended by the eGovernment Minister Patrick O’Donovan TD, which involved meeting and having face-to-face interactions with the public.

Plan for the journey forward

Barry said that the government plans to increase innovation by getting start-ups and SMEs to be more involved in helping to design Government solutions. This is being done using a GovTech approach, similar to Singapore’s efforts.

Further developments to Ireland’s Public Service ICT strategy plan

The Irish government came up with an 18-step programme, comprised of eighteen major activities to drive all 5 aspects of their Public Service ICT Strategy:

  1. Doing more digitally
  2. Doing more with their data
  3. Building of capability
  4. Building infrastructure
  5. Delivering fit for purpose governance

All eighteen projects have progressed considerably and have achieved notable benchmarks. Among them are the delivery of the Gov.ie portal, the passing of legislation (the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019), a Government Private Cloud and the implementation of an ICT Apprenticeship scheme.

The government has plans to extend the uptake, value and capabilities of MyGovID. This will be seen in areas such as mobile-based authentication.

They aim to extend their private cloud into a hybrid cloud approach and make the best use of public cloud services. They also have plans of expanding more efforts into Open Data.

“While we have achieved the targets for ICT set three years ago, we see this as a continuous journey,” he concluded.

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