The case for international collaboration around the whole-of-government approach to digital
A conversation with Tony Shannon, Head of Digital Services for Ireland’s Office of the Government CIO
One of the highlights of the GovStack initiative is the opportunity to convene thought leaders and practitioners working at the cutting edge of digital government from all over the world. The GovStack communities of practice are comprised of some of the smartest minds tackling the world’s toughest issues.
We recently sat down for a conversation with Tony Shannon, Head of Digital Services for Ireland’s Office of the Government CIO. We discussed his background in digital health, his work with GovStack, and Ireland’s vision for a more connected future.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you wind up working in government?
I have been working in the government of Ireland for just 18 months now, but I have worked in the public sector most of my life. I started out as a Physician working in Emergency Medicine and over a 20-year period I worked in Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. Across all geographies, I identified the need for better digital solutions in healthcare. As I was grappling with challenges around people, processes, and technology in the UK’s National Health Service, I started to see patterns and what I would call building blocks for digital healthcare.
I then started to get involved with Leeds City Council on a citizen-held record and that allowed me to take on more of a citizen’s point of view. It prompted my thinking about citizen-centric approaches to digital transformation.
My breakthrough came when I discovered the SDG Digital Investment Framework and I realized the building blocks required to transform healthcare were essentially the same ones required to transform government. It was around this time that I made the move into government to work on digital public services.
Why did you choose to be a part of GovStack?
The world is faced with many challenges – from healthcare to climate, and many other obstacles to quality of life globally. I am a firm believer in the power of collaboration to overcome such giant challenges. I always recommend the book Doughnut Economics – which talks about four key players: the state, the household, the market, and the commons. GovStack, in my mind, is that Commons space, where governments can collaborate with citizens and market players to build services that improve people’s lives.
I find it really useful to be able to reference GovStack in talking about Ireland’s vision, mission and our direction. Indeed, as we partner with other departments internally to develop common workflow requirements, having the Digital Investment Framework and the GovStack building blocks as references has been very helpful. We have identified seven priorities, what we call the “seamless seven,” that can be lined up with GovStack building blocks, such as digital identity, content management, case management, messaging, and analytics, among others. We are working on these in parallel to participating in the GovStack specifications review process.
Whereas many people and institutions were previously resistant to digital, I think the pandemic changed a lot of minds. People understand now digital transformation is not optional. It is here and it is a force to be reckoned with. However, we still have work to do to make it clear that cooperation around building services is absolutely the right thing to do. Some people are more comfortable buying a system off the shelf, rather than co-creating a solution with other national stakeholders, or even international colleagues. The work is on us to prove that co-creation is a better path forward.
Does some of that resistance come from concerns around data privacy and data governance?
Clearly it is in our interest to educate people, so they understand how to have oversight of their own data. If we can build and design digital systems and services with citizens in mind, with open standards, open APIs, and open architecture, we can support citizens in taking charge of their data. At the moment, the market players take advantage of the fragmented nature of the system, so that they can control and sell data. In an ideal world, it should be the choice of the citizen whether they want to sell and make a profit off their data. I certainly would not encourage people to sell their own data, but at the end of the day, it should be people’s choice.
How did Ireland get started on this journey to digital government?
This type of collaboration around digital has been a growing priority for Europe for some time now. The European Commission’s recent Digital Decade, which includes targets for 2030 and and highlights digital government as one of the four cardinal aims of a Digital Compass. In alignment with that framework, Ireland has just published its own approach towards driving a digital agenda that puts the citizens at the center. The Connecting Government 2030: A Digital and ICT Strategy for Ireland’s Public Service sets out a framework within which all public service organizations can deliver their digital commitments focused on the targets set out in the national digital strategy. That includes the Irish Government’s “Build To Share” strategy of building reusable services, which has been in place for some time now and demonstrates Ireland’s leading thinking here already.
What are the current digital services being delivered? And what services are you working on next?
We have already rolled out two high-value and high-impact services. The first is gov.ie which is a one stop shop for information about the government. It has been really successful so far and vitally important to the people of this country during the challenging days of the pandemic. We are hoping to build out from it with more services in future. Second is the EU Digital Covid Certificate, which was deployed at speed and scale last year. This was hugely impactful in reopening society during the pandemic. We benefited greatly from the EU providing open standards and open-source components to learn from and leverage.
Now, we are building on those learnings, shifting to focus on specific use cases for our Life Events portal – a concept countries like Singapore and Estonia have been leading. The idea being that you support citizens from cradle to grave. We have selected three initial life events use cases to actively explore – around births, marriage, and death. We have been working on the building blocks for the last year and now we are moving into the implementation phase.
How will you measure success?
One of the building blocks we’ve called out is analytics/business intelligence and with those, we will build a dashboard of our services in order to understand level of usage. We would hope the level of usage would be a good proxy for value. With gov.ie we saw a large volume of usage of the service, and we do tend to track volume of usage as a crude metric. Another metric we will look at is surveyed user satisfaction. We are now in the early stages of consulting with citizens about what digital services they would like us to support and as we roll those out, we will look to measure their satisfaction.
What are you excited about for the future?
I am keen we collaborate nationally and internationally. I know Europe for instance is trying to foster an open-source program office (OSPO), with the understanding that open-source could be a key dynamic in terms of digital and data sovereignty and putting citizens in charge of their data. I hope the work we are doing here in Ireland could then be seen as a piece of the broader whole.
Much credit is owed to the many low- and middle-income countries that are leading the way and providing the great ideas and thought leadership to propel the world forward. Many of these products and projects can be found and built upon via DIAL’s Catalog of Digital Solutions. If we are all engineering our own tools in our own siloes and not collaborating, it will be a huge missed opportunity for global advancement at a key moment in time.