Digital and technology

The future of digital public services

The Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is set to publish its Digital and Data Strategy in early 2023, enabling a collaborative and innovative approach to transforming public service delivery that recognises digital and data as key enablers for public service modernisation.

The strategy will attempt to meet the challenges posed by rapid digital transformation, such as the migration to cloud, the increasing cybersecurity challenge, sustainability, and the building of a resilient economy supported by innovative digital services. Five pillars will define the approach taken under the aegis of the strategy:

1. digital infrastructure;

2. digital data;

3. cybersecurity;

4. digital transformation; and

5. digital culture.

To fully understand the challenge of digital transformation facing the NICS, a digital maturity assessment will be undertaken to assess how technology may help business improvement, identify key strengths, gaps, and possible improvements in the provision of digital services.

Already, the NICS has carried out a ‘deep dive’, analysing its digital skill levels at all grades to consider how the Digital and Data Strategy can address staffing challenges and empower NICS staff and departments to play an active role in the modernisation of the service.

An example of the modernisation taking place is the change to the user interface and functionality of the OpenDataNI portal, as well as the OpenDataNI Innovation and Outreach Fund. The Outreach Fund is in its second year and financing projects such as AirNode, which specialises in air quality analysis and provides interactive online visualisation displaying pollution black spots and air quality predictions.

New ways of working

Allied to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated public health restrictions was an unprecedented change in patterns of working. The NICS has been no exception to that experience, shifting from an 80 per cent office-based workforce to a hybrid model.

Half of all NICS staff work in Belfast, with 54 per cent of those having to commute to Belfast city centre. However, a new whole-of-government working group was formed and through its engagement with staff determined that 98 per cent of staff want to work in a hybrid environment.

To facilitate this ambition, the NICS has established Connect2 remote working hubs, offering staff the opportunity to work remotely somewhere other than their homes; hubs in Ballykelly, Ballymena, Craigavon, Downpatrick, Omagh, and Bangor are open, with further hubs planned in Newtownabbey, Derry, Mid-Ulster, Enniskillen, and Newry. Using Ordnance Survey NI data, these hub locations were selected due to their coinciding with key commuter routes.

NICS surveys show that 97 per cent of those who have used the hubs have rated their experience as either good or excellent, 90 per cent of users are using them as an alternative to working from home, and 60 per cent want to use them at least once a week.

“NICS surveys show that 97 per cent of those who have used Connect2 hubs have rated their experience as either good or excellent, 90 per cent of users are using them as an alternative to working from home, and 60 per cent want to use them at least once a week”.

Also under development is the James House refurbishment, which will accommodate 1,200 staff, from 16 organisations across Northern Ireland and UK central government. It will utilise five different IT service providers once complete.

In order to facilitate greater flexibility, the NICS has deployed a neutral IT structure, enabling shared services. This will allow NICS digital networks to work with the health service and enable smaller organisations to avail of more flexible workspaces and devices and technology that were previously unaffordable.

Digital inclusion

The NICS Digital Inclusion Unit works with Business in the Community (BITC), Supporting Communities and LibrariesNI to help get citizens online, with 12 per cent of adults currently not using the internet, including half of the 65+ population. Further, one-in-three people with a disability do not use the internet.

The Go ON NI initiative targets older people, people with physical or mental disabilities, socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, the long-term unemployed, and rural communities. The initiative encourages people to go online and improve the convenience and efficiency of public services by driving online delivery and addressing the barriers and promoting the benefits of affordability, government services, access, skills, motivation, and savings.

While differing communication channels such as webchat, email and the Internet of Things continue to grow, the telephone has remained the number one method of communication for NICS call centres. However, a shift in necessary specialisation has been noted and will be tackled through the NICS call centre roadmap; NICS data shows that while the number of overall calls to call centres have fallen, the length of these calls has increased by 40 per cent.


Two-fifths of reported cyberattacks in recent years have targeted public services, with malware identified as the number one threat to digital environments. Cybercriminals now attempt to use the people who use systems as an entry point, meaning the NICS cannot rely singly on individual teams or organisations to deliver the security required. A collaborative approach is required to manage that cyberthreat.

The threat landscape continues to evolve and now encompasses cloud security. The NICS has made significant investment in SIEM/SOC technology, which has already identified a tenfold increase in cyberattack events as compared to those reported by staff. The increase in workload has informed investment in capability and capacity, with the establishment of a security operating centre in the Department of Finance.

Digital development

The NICS has been granted further access to resources, with shared services such as PaaS, Payments, Notify and Sign-In being utilised. The civil service defines its approach to digital development as user-centred, incorporating the needs of the user into the design process.

Learning from the digital response to Covid, whereby apps such as COVIDCare NI, StopCOVIDNI, and the Covid Certification Service were quickly rolled out, these critical advances will enable multi-disciplinary working, increased productivity and building public trust, with an emphasis on security, compliance, and transparency. Business strategies will need to flex rapidly as both NICS staff and organisations prepare for a digitally driven future and resilient economy.

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