What should Northern Ireland do to strengthen its position as a digital leader?
Mark Owens, Managing Director, Civica Northern Ireland
Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017, there is a perception that the lack of central leadership has had a knock-on effect on the region’s technology advancements and focus. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Northern Ireland is currently a UK technology leader, with initiatives such as the Belfast Smart Cities; as part of this the Belfast Immersive Lab, in partnership with the Department of Economy and Digital Catapult, is giving organisations throughout the region the opportunity to tryout, proto-type and exploit virtual and augmented reality technologies.
However, to retain and cement our place as a technology driven region, public and private sector leaders in Northern Ireland should continue to invest in initiatives designed to meet rapidly growing demands in all areas of life.
Driving Northern Ireland’s digital future
A clear roadmap for increasing the number of digital services has been set out by the government as part of its Strategy for Digital Transformation of Public Services 2017-2021. As part of this, the government is simplifying processes such as criminal record checks. The AccessNI service has been simplified: previously a lengthy process where citizens had to complete and return paper based applications, they now use a quick, efficient online service, with over 99% of all disclosure applications submitted online.
In fact, in many ways Northern Ireland is way ahead of the UK in terms of its digital strategy and transformation projects. For some, devolution has proved beneficial, with less bureaucracy and fewer obstacles to overcome to kick-start projects; giving local departments and organisations greater freedom to experiment with new technologies and try out different digital services. One example is the NI Direct Strategic Partnership Programme, where over 30 significant services have been transformed, delivering more than 15 million new online transactions. Not only has this generated cost savings and efficiencies, but citizens are also benefiting from faster services.
Harnessing innovation, technology and data
This drive to embrace digital services is not just limited to our healthcare trusts. The ‘Belfast Smart City Framework,’ backed by the government’s Future Cities Catapult, is continuing to encourage greater innovation and collaboration between local businesses, universities and the public sector. As part of this, in June 2018 a £3 million project called the ‘Pulse Smart Hub’ was launched to enhance Belfast’s access to digital services for tourists and citizens alike (for example, through free public Wi-Fi and local touch screen maps in the city centre). Although this would not have been possible without UK government’s investment, the project was largely driven by Belfast Council and Belfast-based telecommunications operator, Euro Payphone.
What’s more, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is integrating a new criminal justice data sharing (CJDS) platform in a bid to streamline processes and systems. Civica’s CJDS platform, scheduled to go live later this year, will facilitate information sharing between police, forensic investigators, prisons and the Northern Irish Public Prosecution Service. With public expectations changing, it’s great to see a major Northern Irish public body adopting data-driven technologies that will enhance the service they deliver to citizens by improving criminal-justice outcomes and driving efficiency and productivity within the police department.
Looking to the future
Clearly our political difficulties have not had a major impact on the region’s public-private partnerships, nor have they inhibited our drive to share skills, creativity and knowledge between the public and private sectors. In fact, our recent Changing Landscape report research found that 90% of citizens believe Northern Ireland’s services are now ripe for digitisation. While excellent progress has been made in the last two years, more still needs to be done to strengthen Northern Ireland’s digital identity.
Organisations across Northern Ireland must constantly listen to the demands of citizens and customers, responding to their needs and desires in order to drive real collaboration across the region. We must also look to harness and share data and educate our children with technology to maintain our position as a global digital leader and determine long-lasting success.
If we don’t prioritise the improvement of services we risk going backwards: simply sitting back and letting digital delivery slip is no longer an option. With Brexit fast approaching, and the political future looking more and more uncertain, it has never been more important to bring public and private sector organisations closer together for the development of Northern Ireland’s economic and social prosperity.