Why digital government in Ireland is failing - & how to fix it

Shane Diffily
Jan 26, 2019 · 3 min read

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.

Image for post
Image for post

And it’s not for want of money

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 slick new web things.

And so the cycle goes on… launch » neglect » redesign! » launch » neglect » redesign! » launch » neglect » etc.

But it’s worse than that.

Redesigns divert limited funds away from the skills and resources that could actually deliver meaningful services and help build digital literacy in public organisations.

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?

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 redesign using responsive templates. The proof is in the people.

Where are they?

Where are the people?

So, where are the ranks of skilled professionals the Irish government needs to deliver? Where are the:

  • Content strategists
  • Content writers
  • Data analytics specialists
  • UX designers
  • Graphic designers
  • 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 government rely on existing IT teams as a substitute. For all the excellent developers and engineers in IT, they are not enough.

Repeat after me.

Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web is not IT. Web 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).

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 as both a consultant and a contractor. Now is the time to let them build the teams they need.

As long as ‘redesign’ remains the default solution, failure will be a feature not a flaw.

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