This May, I attended a Digital Leaders evening salon in Belfast for what turned out to be an intriguing discussion with one recurring theme. While the Digital Leaders chair Robin Knowles chose Civica’s latest Changing Landscape report, ‘Strengthening Northern Ireland’s digital identity’ as the stimulus for the conversation, the narrative took on a life of its own in the end.
The attendees were an eclectic mix of public sector, private sector, users of digital technology and providers of digital services and solutions. It was unusual then that a recurring theme should fall out so readily from the discussion. And what was that theme? We should be more joined up. It sounds simple but actually the theme was expressed in many different ways and from different contextual positions.
Some public sector professionals described how budgeting, capital allocation and even procurement rules often prevented them from taking a holistic and joined up approach, instead making them echo the somewhat siloed nature of government. This mirroring of the physical into the virtual was uniformly frowned upon by the audience which was hungry for something more transformational – a frustration shared by the public sector attendees themselves who wanted to be more joined up.
This theme cropped up again but in a very different context. After some discussion, those that represented suppliers of digital solutions and those who bought or used them agreed that we should be more coordinated in promoting our successes and the leading innovation and technology development happening in Northern Ireland: to both inform and enthuse the public. One of the key messages from the Changing Landscape report is that NI’s citizens are mainly accepting of and, in some cases, demanding more digital public services. So a first joined-up step should be to ensure they are aware of, and perhaps even proud of, the more than 30 major services which already exist.
A further strong theme was joined-up data, with many in the audience citing examples of opportunities missed or errors made by failing to join up the data dots effectively. There seemed to be a mixed reasons, from (often unfounded) concerns around GDPR through to lack of knowledge of the other data sets out there. Yet one thing was clear: it was rarely the technology itself that was the problem.
However, the biggest area and the factor that seemed to cause the most concern, was the skills shortage. Audience members from all aspects of the market expressed frustration over the growing shortage of skilled technical employees and the apparent lack of a joined up plan between primary education, further education, government and industry. One advocate expressed strongly that we should be teaching coding to seven-year-olds and nurturing an interest or aptitude through the education system to create a skills pipeline. Frustration was expressed about some of our local talent being absorbed into the FDI sphere, which while it creates employment, does little else for the local market. Others decried the lack of funding for innovative training and re-training schemes or in one example, the lack of an Assembly to sign off on spending for one.
It was recognised that private sector organisations such as Civica were taking steps to improve this, with scholarship programmes, digital hackathons, coder dojos and other initiatives underway with schools and colleges. But this needs to be in tandem with a government-backed, coordinated, end-to-end plan for skills which takes all factors into account. After all, this is where being joined-up for the long term will really make an impact.