Digital and technology

The future of digital public services

Director of Digital Shared Services, Iggy O’Doherty, discusses the immediate priorities within the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) of data, capability and infrastructure to support digital transformation in government.

Setting the context of a range of challenges and opportunities thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past two years in relation to the digital transformation of government, O’Doherty points to an ongoing focus on building capability within the NICS.

“Improving the digital literacy of staff across government departments, including those of senior leaders, is central to the effective running of our business areas,” he explains, outlining work to professionalise the public sector’s approach to a host of disciplines such as procurement, contract management and security, in order to develop the digital skills required to lead and run modern government departments.

With the majority of NICS staff now working remotely, the public sector’s dependence on digital technology has never been greater and as a result, O’Doherty states: “There is a growing need to enhance the digital skills of public sector colleagues and improve our own digital capability so that we can deliver better and more efficient public services.”

Recently, O’Doherty oversaw research which considered how NICS staff were using technology and commissioned a survey to ascertain how competent staff felt they were in using technology.

“Our research focused on digital skills to establish if we had the required learning and development to support our staff and we supplemented this with a digital skills assessment.” says O’Doherty.

Follow up surveys have been conducted and the Director of Digital Shared Services points out that interventions informed by the research have led to an approximate 43 per cent improvement in digital skills.

Additionally, the findings prompted a deep-dive analysis and the creation of an array of eLearning utilities to help develop staff further. At the end of 2021, O’Doherty and his team launched the eLearning package across all NICS departments.

Stressing that work will continue on building digital capability in the NICS, O’Doherty adds: “As head of profession for ICT in the NICS, I am going to tackle capability and talent pipeline issues head on. We have many new digital recruitment opportunities and are actively defining career paths to build future capacity.”

Digital transformation

Turning to digital transformation, O’Doherty points to the recent launch of the digital transformation hub for all NICS staff, as a means to help promote better awareness of the services provided, highlight the changes enabled and offer staff a feedback channel for the transformation team. It is seen as a platform for viewing the success of digital transformation work across the public sector.

The success underpins the goals of the NICS’s Digital Transformation Strategy and O’Doherty explains that the portal is used by all government departments to share learning experiences and lessons of excellence.

Iggy O’Doherty, Director of Digital Shared Services

However, the Director of Digital Shared Services is aware of the need to continuously drive forward digital inclusion, recognising that while the pandemic caused a surge in digital interaction with public services, it also exacerbated the digital divide for those who remain offline. To this end, he says that his Digital Inclusion Unit were relentless with their efforts throughout Covid and continue to work closely with external stakeholders, such as Business in the Community, Supporting Communities and LibrariesNI to minimise the gap.

Technology and digital adoption

O’Doherty explains that increased demand for digital public services has compelled the Digital Shared Services’ design team to adopt new technologies.

Setting out the ongoing work, he says: “We are using public cloud services to build new solutions, often harnessing the services available from current ICT solutions. Our aim is to deploy multi-cloud services and a major shift in emphasis has been the strategic move to host a number of solutions in Platform As A Service – a rapidly scalable infrastructure service designed for 24/7 public sector use.”

He adds: “We have recently deployed some innovative software tools to complement digital development. Rigorously testing whilst automating security validation within our software development life cycle at all stages has driven excellent results. This digital maturity is now a central feature of our discipline.”

O’Doherty stresses the importance of including the challenge function and external scrutiny as the team develop solutions in an agile way and at pace.

“This initiative will ensure that our team continues to produce high quality, secure solutions, but much faster than before,” he says.

Explaining the influence of the relatively new NICS Enterprise Architecture Principles, a blueprint to be used as a decisional framework when considering process, system and technology directions across all departments, O’Doherty says: “We aim to avoid duplicating effort and incurring unnecessary costs by collaborating across government, sharing and re-using technology, data and services.

“We will adapt and reuse existing information and technology assets where possible before we procure. We are not in the business of developing solutions to rival proven products already available in the marketplace, our Enterprise Digital Design Team publish their code and use open-source software to improve transparency, flexibility and accountability.”

The Director of Digital Shared Services explains that the team also use open standards to ensure that solutions work with other technology stacks and can be easily upgraded and expanded. Setting out that all future applications should be cloud native in design and cloud vendor agnostic he says that they continue to work closely with the UK Government Digital Service to define and implement data standards, meet user needs, and improve interoperability and data sharing.

Digital response to Covid-19

O’Doherty is adamant that the transformation agenda should continue to meet the growing expectations of the public. Outlining plans to build on the uptake of over half-a-million nidirect accounts, he discusses plans to deliver a more personalised and responsive user experience, with a planned ‘tell us once’ service.

Aiming to capitalise on the public’s positive experience shift in dealing with digital public services, O’Doherty explains that personalised ‘tell us once’ services will be underpinned by digital identity assurance, something his team are working on closely with partners to plan for the next generation of secure accredited assurance services.

“This will be a streamlined successor to some existing solutions and will over time replace other digital identity services used across government,” he states.

Enhancing digital security

The need for digital security assurance has never been more essential given the changes to the threat landscape. The National Cyber Security Centre recently warned that ransomware is the prevalent threat to government digital services.

O’Doherty says that the implementation of a Security and Information Event Management (SIEM) system and Security Operations Centre (SOC) managed service will improve resilience significantly and points to SIEM and SOC as “our single biggest strategic investment in enhancing digital security in government”.

Strategic direction

Turning to the strategic direction of the future, O’Doherty sees digital as being front and centre of future priorities to deliver better public services. He plans to move ahead in 2022 with a new Digital Strategy in the NICS. Acknowledging a number of planned strategies currently being developed by Cabinet Office, the Director of Digital Shared Services says that his team are actively engaged with UK Government partners to ensure that the needs of the Northern Ireland public are reflected in the shaping of future services.

Concluding, O’Doherty says: “Collaboration has been key to digital transformation in public services, we could not have done it on our own. We now need to build on our achievements by developing more partnership working across the public sector, retaining the alliances that we have established but also developing better networks with our private sector colleagues.

“I am really proud of what we have delivered across the public sector during this extraordinary time, and we will continue to do our bit to make the lives of those living here even better.”

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