Why digital government in Ireland is failing - & how to fix it
Underachievement is designed into digital government in Ireland. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The symptoms are manifest. Endless ‘redesigns’ instead of meaningful action.
The cause is also clear. A near total absence of essential digital skills.
“But” you might say “look at how easy it is to renew Motor Tax online.”
Sure, Motor Tax is easy. But that’s the point. It’s easy! It’s a very straightforward transaction. What else has government done?
The answer (with some honourable exceptions such as Revenue, HSE and a few others) is not much.
And it’s not for want of money
Government regularly spends hundreds of thousands of euro on ‘redesigns’. Perhaps that shows that they understand web?
Nope. In fact, endless redesigns are the number 1 sign of digital illiteracy. Most simply copy tired, old content into new templates.
What’s the point?
The public craves information and services that are easy to find, read and understand, not prettier layouts.
“I wish you would spend less time making web information clearer & easier to find and more time on nice colours & images” … said no-one ever!
The problem with redesigns is that they are something most senior officials can understand.
They’re projects. They’re time limited. They can be budgeted. Most excitingly, they deliver shiny new things.
And so the cycle goes on… launch » decline » redesign! » launch » decline » redesign! » launch » decline » etc.
But it’s worse than that.
Redesigns divert limited funds away from the skills and resources that could actually deliver meaningful services.
So they’re doubly destructive :(
Sure, design is part of the solution. But it’s not the solution. You will never simply redesign your way out of this.
In fact, improving content is much, much more important than design. But no-one ever tenders for a web ‘rewrite’.
Perhaps things are changing?
Governments around the world are investing in online. Ireland too is picking up on these trends.
In 2015 the Public Service ICT Strategy made the promise of ‘Digital First’.
I remember when it was launched. There was a lot of excitement. “Wow! Some real digital change is coming.”
Some people point to gov.ie or related endeavours to show that things are happening.
I can’t agree.
I see little evidence that ‘digital first’ means anything other than redesign using responsive templates. The proof is in the people.
Where are they?
Where are the people?
Delivering and maintaining sophisticated digital services is hard. It requires substantial effort, lots of tools and many full-time specialists in content, design, code, data and more.
So, where are the ranks of skilled professionals the Irish government needs to deliver? Where are the:
- User researchers
- Content strategists
- Content designers
- UX/UI designers
- Accessibility specialists
- Analytics specialists
- Product managers
- Web managers
There are none (or am I missing something?)
And you cannot rely on consultants or contractors to fill the gap. That means no skills transfer, no digital learning and (ultimately) no progress.
Nor can you use existing IT teams as a substitute. For all the excellent work done by developers and engineers in government, they are not enough.
Repeat after me.
Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Digital is not IT. Get it!?
Different needs. Different skills. Different tools.
It’s simply not fair to ask an IT team to plan, implement and manage digital content, design, analytics, accessibility, user engagement, etc. Let them focus on what they are good at and hire dedicated new skills for new disciplines.
It’s not like recruitment would be hard.
Adopt a new approach to digital government and hiring will mostly take care of itself, as happened for the GDS team in GOV.uk. The new manpower will also pay for itself (many times over) from the cost savings that follow, eg £450m+ in the UK government over just 2 years.
So, if digital first is to mean anything, it must mean putting digital skills first.
There are lots of great people in government. I know because I have worked with them. Now is the time to let them build the digital teams they need.
As long as ‘redesign’ remains the default solution, failure will be a feature not a flaw.