Ireland is a mid-ranking player in digital provision
of government services, with a lot of work done,
but more still to do
Jason Walsh & Ciaran Harris
First appeared 15 OCT 2022 in the Sunday Business Post
How good Ireland is at providing public sector services digitally is not a simple question to answer. Indeed, depending on who you ask – and what their most recent experience has been – the answer could be very different indeed.
While countries such as Estonia have hit the headlines for their attempts to move all bureaucratic tasks online, and simplify them to boot, Ireland, neither a laggard nor a leader, makes many services available online, but investment can appear spotty.
Against that, however, in March of this year the government launched its roadmap ‘Connecting Government 2030 – A Digital and ICT Strategy for Ireland's Public Service’.
Overall, Ireland ranks fifth among the 27 EU member states in the 2022 edition of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), though that index covers broad range of factors, not just how many government services are available online.
Striking a positive note, Ciarán Harris, co-founder and director of user experience agency Each&Other, said that Ireland’s position meant that big improvements could be achieved with relative ease.
Having a design-oriented mind, Harris said that a touch of design thinking would make a significant contribution to delivering services to the public.
“Design is about problem solving: we understand the problem, that’s research; and we solve it, that’s design. We always design for future proofing,” he said.
However, he also said the country should do more. Indeed, beyond low hanging fruit, there was a need, Harris said, to make bold policy decisions.
“You look across at Norway: they’re pushing very hard for eclectic cars, and heavily subsidising it. We’re not at the races as regards these bold, forward-thinking decisions. There hasn’t really been a bold move since the Lemass government or Ardnacrusha, those big moonshots.
“I’d like to see more things done, to see more bold, bold thinking,” he said.
Transport was only one example, Harris said, but it was nonetheless an instructive one given that the future of both public and private transport are key to a range of issues, from demographics and planning to environment and energy.
“We could be a hotbed of innovation and transformation around smart cities. We could be the autonomous vehicle trial centre of Europe,” he said.
Setting the sights higher will mean taking a look not only at the existing IT estate, but also what the various systems are trying to achieve.
“You need to have a coherent view of where you want the transformation to go, so you can ensure that even bespoke systems work together,” Harris said.
Indeed, government is not alone in being slower to move, not is it alone in finding itself hidebound by legacy IT systems. The reality is, however, that user expectations were higher than ever, he said.
“You see ‘just working’ in the banks’ offerings. Just working isn't good enough anymore, it needs to work well,” he said.
The pace of change will only increase as new technologies come on stream, and sectors that do not engage will find the pressure on them increasing.
“Artificial intelligence is going to drive massive transformation in society. It is creeping up on us and will then seem to suddenly appear,” he said.
One very clear role for government, then, is regulation: as it stands, there is very little transparency in AI.
“That is somewhere government could play a major role. There's no visibility into the ‘black box’, and no accountability regarding potential bias,” he said.
Bold thinking does mean taking risks, of course – but there are methods for managing that risk, such as studying what other European countries are doing or have already done, said Harris.
“We position ourselves as a country as very high tech, but if you look under the hood that’s not what we are. It’s where we could be, though,” he said.