Feeding citizens’ knowledge back to aid state agencies digital transformation

According to the tech consultants, Irish local and central government bodies are working to deliver for the public while also walking a tightrope

Mike Lillis, Storm Technology, says that the state’s digital transformation is useful to everyone: ‘if you see a pothole you can report it and it can be dealt with in a timely manner’. Picture: John Ohle Photo

The breakneck pace of technological change has resulted in huge shifts in the delivery of everything from financial services to, well, deliveries. But what might be a simple enough commercial decision for a business can be much more difficult for public-sector organisations. Despite this, innovation is occurring.

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Storm Technology

Year company was founded: 1995

Number of staff: 150+

Why it is in the news: Storm has found Irish government bodies are ready and willing to innovate digitally

Mike Lillis, chief commercial officer of business and tech consultants Storm Technology, said that bodies at all levels of government in Ireland were now engaged with digital transformation.

“From a budgetary perceptive, there is a lot of investment going into local and central government now. The larger ones are spending in order to create efficiencies, and to respond to the public more quickly,” he said.

“The areas of focus are definitely in digital transformation and artificial intelligence [AI],” he said.

But what does this mean in practice?

In simple terms, converting paper into electronic data and taking data in electronically, Lillis said.

The results can be quite dramatic, allowing for not only faster responses but better engagements with citizens. For example, technology can be deployed to allow residents to notify local authorities about potholes or fly-tipping using photos and location data from their phones.

“If you see a pothole you can report it and it can be dealt with in a timely manner. That’s in place in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal County councils in Dublin,” he said.

Other examples include online tax filing and claiming, and even mediation of landlord-tenant relations.

“Another one is landlord and tenants. With the RTB [Residential Tenancies Board], all the documentation to do with that is online. You register online, pay the fees online, and all of the disputes can be recorded,” he said.

This has benefits for more people than the two parties involved as it allows the government to perform better statistical analyses.

“The government can take a macro view: how many tenancies do we have, how many are registered, and so on,” Lillis said.

Governance for governments

Of course, once data is being collected it is also being processed and stored. This immediately raises the thorny topic of governance, the complexity of which can act as a drag on innovation.

“Every department has to respect the data submitted by a member of the public,” Lillis said.

Simple data sovereignty has to be respected, for instance.

“If you put that data in the cloud, how do you ensure that data stays in Ireland, and in the EU, and doesn’t end-up in Britain or the US? That question about data residency is a consistent concern,” he said.

Storm works with its cloud partners to ensure data is kept where it is supposed to be, but that is not the last of the questions. Indeed, new regulation, in the form of the revised EU Network and Information Security Directive (NIS2), needs to be taken into account.

“NIS2 is coming in, from a cyber security perspective, in October and that is something organisations need to be compliant with,” he said.

Has this driven public sector organisations away from the cloud? No, said Lillis, but it has promoted caution in some quarters.

“There are definitely still people who are sceptical of cloud. They are comfortable with the data sitting in the office,” he said.

Government is acutely aware of the public when it comes to introducing change

However, while organisations should not be shy of asking questions of, and indeed making demands of, their service providers, Lillis said, there was no need to be afraid of the cloud as a concept.

“On a macro level, when you ask a global provider to look after your data you are putting trust in them. The billions they put into research is a lot more than most people in Ireland can do,” he said.

Ongoing technological change is having an effect on what government agencies want to do, too. AI, for example, was an area where the public sector was quite advanced, Lillis said.

“This [AI] is where we are seeing that the public sector is leading the way in experimentation. It’s about proof-of-value; they’re taking things that are very important and what people are looking at is if there are uses of AI to meet their own organisational needs,” he said.

“It’s very pleasing to see that [pioneering] attribute in the public sector,” he said.

While we are all well used to businesses leaping forward in digital technology, he said, government is not only delivering, it is doing so while keeping its responsibility to citizens at the forefront of introducing change.

“We see so much [technology] in our private lives, so when people see that from the government it’s almost expected, but I think we need to give the government credit for doing that. Government is acutely aware of the public when it comes to introducing change,” he said.