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Changing Landscapes, tipping points and other visual metaphors

Civica Northern Ireland Director Bob McClean on Northern Ireland’s digital future

In February 2019, Civica officially launched its Changing Landscape report for Northern Ireland (NI). This set out the views and vision of our digital leaders around government digital services and perhaps, more tellingly, the perspective of our citizens – captured by independently surveying more than 1,000 people. We commissioned this report for two reasons: firstly, it was our view that NI is at a digital tipping point where much good work has been done, but there is more to do and, importantly, that more is actually about joining up services. Secondly, we had a feeling that the focus has been about government ‘getting things online’ and it was now time to survey the lay of the land from a citizen’s standpoint (the other visual metaphor).

Having been in the industry for a while now, I went into the process believing that I could have a reasonable stab at predicting the report outcomes, and whilst in some cases that held true, in a couple of key areas I was well wide of the mark. It’s those areas of surprise that are actually interesting, telling and point towards the way forward.

One of the questions we asked the public was about ranking the top three things they wanted from government when it came to online, digital services. The possible choices covered a range of what would be classed as pure digital plays, but also included a choice to have a chatbot or even a live person to talk to outside of working hours. I was pretty sure that this would be a popular choice as it’s having the best of both worlds, but in reality, 24/7 access to online services was at the top of the list, with almost 40% of citizens ranking this as a top priority.

I also suspected that the NI public might have a fairly understated view about the value of digital services to them as citizens, but again this wasn’t what the research showed, with 90% thinking that public services are suitable for digitisation, 85% stating that digital technology could benefit their community and over 60% believing public services currently make good use of digital technology to enhance their lives. If that doesn’t say, “It’ll work, it’ll be positive and we want it” then I don’t know what does!

Perhaps one of the most revealing statistics came from the topic of the public’s perception of why government services where being digitised and moved online.  It’s a well-used mantra that the public have expectations about digital services which are set by their private sector experiences and whilst this is true, they didn’t see this as a driver or reason for the move to online. In fact, this choice came a very lowly third place, well behind the top two which could be summarised as, “Because the technology can do it” and “It’ll save money”. 

When it came to our digital leaders, the roundtables we held with them generated mood music which was more aligned but still slightly at odds with what I expected. There was little talk of Brexit or the lack of an Assembly as being blockers to progress, and indeed it was evident that there was a degree of annoyance that these topics distracted from the real debate and the real drive. It’s easy to forget that those charged with transforming government into a digital agency are in fact focussed on some very tangible goals, and like anyone else, they get frustrated with things that impact on their ability or pace in achieving them.

Some key themes leapt out from these roundtable sessions, but for me two were highly significant. Our digital leaders recognised that they still operated somewhat in siloes which not only prevented them from both sharing lessons learned and best practice, but also stopped them delivering seamless services to the citizens. It was clear that this siloed approach was viewed as sub-optimal and it will be interesting to see how our leaders join up to break down those particular walls.

The real elephant in the room though was something that only we as a joined up nation can address. Our leaders recognised that digital services deliver, are accepted and in fact wanted by the public and that good progress has been made to date, but that there is still a mountain of work ahead of them. Their challenge back to us as a provider of digital transformation capability, and indeed to the whole of Northern Ireland was “Where are all the skilled, qualified and experienced people we’re going to need to deliver this coming from?”

From primary schools right through to employers – we need to join up too.

Strengthening Northern Ireland's digital identity

90% of NI citizens believe our public services are suitable for digitisation. Now is the time to work together and strengthen N.Ireland's digital identity.

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