Podcast 🎧 & blog: Five reflections on effective digital government from Ireland

17.05.2022 | Federico Plantera


This year’s e-Governance Conference has been a key moment of observation and learning to walk the path of digital transformation. Plenty of interesting sessions and contents for all tastes – from AI to cyber-resilience, to digital sovereignty and proactive services. For one session, though, we went for the helicopter view (quite literally).

How does effective digital transformation look from above? From the perspective of those who need to inspire, guide, and organize teams so that plans become policies, and then action. We are talking about Government CIOs, a role whose specifics we explored already in a pre-conference episode with Siim Sikkut.

On stage last week, the former Estonian CIO was joined by two colleagues, one of them featured in this episode of the Digital Government Podcast. Let’s take a look at five lessons learnt through the lens of Barry Lowry, Chief Information Officer of the Irish Government, and Chief Adviser to government on all things digital.

A slightly different format for this blog. One by one, we present the main takeaways from his experience, in a wide-ranging conversation from user journey design to tech, regulation, and the meaning of innovation.



Understand the diversity of users and journeys

With many new technologies available, we can completely rethink the ways we deliver services. That is one of the main possibilities that digitization releases. “Digitization lends itself to understanding what the user is trying to accomplish when they’re interacting with government. And then you are using technology to enable them to do it,” Lowry explains.

But do you treat every user the same? “The answer is: absolutely not! Because we are not the same. We are a diverse society. So, you’ve got to think about the diversity of journeys, and try and develop the means that allow different users to interact with government as easily.”

This is what being an advocate of citizens and users means. “To understand the needs of your people, be empathetic to those needs, and then working out ways to make their journey much easier,” Lowry says.


Business champions to put tech to good use

The yearly appointment with the Digital Economy and Society (DESI) index publication reminds us that a digital society is not achieved by simply taking governments online. The dividends of digital transformation must be capillary and distributed – for businesses too.

Ireland seems to be one of the most advanced countries in Europe in terms of business use of technology. But to a 50% of businesses with world class practices, corresponds another 50% with limited or zero uptake,” Lowry illustrates. “Enabling those businesses to go online opens up opportunities for them to sell those products beyond the island.”

“To champion that, we have various tools in place – educational, funding, help with technology – that will enable them to catch up.” And contribute more to the economy and to job creation.


Cloud is critical

Among the technologies that both the public and private sectors need to be mindful of, cloud seems to stand as the most critical at the moment. “Because the difficult part of running a business and using technology is actually running the infrastructure, if you decide to do it yourself. And it can be a barrier to organizations going online,” Lowry says.

“Cloud enables you to go online very, very quickly. And to let someone else worry about the security of your data, the uptime of your systems, all of those things. Thus, cloud brings an immediate benefit.”

“GDPR is my friend”

Even though not all regulations ‘are created equal’, so to say, one stands among others for the good it can do – and that is GDPR. As Lowry explains with clarity, GDPR sets up a whole new standard in Europe for how governments and other parties manage personal data. “And I’ve got a little saying that I repeat every morning and night to myself that is: ‘GDPR is my friend’.”

But other than simply enforcing rules, GDPR also allowed for better practices about data collection and management to see the light. “It forced us in government to really think carefully about the services we provide, and the data we need to provide those services. Perhaps the first three or four years of GDPR were a bit problematic, because governments were trying to get their head around how to use it correctly, how to deploy it. But then it made much clearer, when we develop a technical solution, the reasons why we are doing it,” Lowry explains.

What is innovation?

We end the talk with a rather theoretical – perhaps philosophical – conclusion about the meaning of innovation. “To me, innovation is about problem solving. It’s not invention. It’s using invention to solve problems,” Lowry says.

And sure, on the path to digital transformation we must account for failure. It’s taxpayers’ money that we’re talking about, in the end. “But if you start to talk about problems in society that you’re trying to resolve, you can try and use technology in a very honest way. For example, minimizing the investment initially to make sure that it can actually work, and then growing it.”

“I think governments can actually be leaders in good innovation. But you’ve got to resolve a problem, and if I can’t explain to you or the person in the street why I’m using this technology, what problem I’m trying to resolve, then that’s not proper innovation,” is Lowry convinced.


Listen to all episodes of the Digital Government Podcast here!

New episodes will be launched every Wednesday.