The Icelandic Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs launched an ambitious initiative to accelerate the digital transformation of public services in Iceland in 2019. The overall goal was to streamline the way citizens and businesses access government services by creating more efficient, effective, and user-centric digital services and infrastructure. Though Iceland is a small country, it now ranks fifth in the UN’s global E-Government Survey from 19th when the project started.
My company, Andes, participated in the project as a technical consultant on technology infrastructure and cloud adoption. In this blog post, I’m going to share why Digital Iceland’s decision to work with partners to access knowledge and capabilities underpinned successful service transformation, enabling them to digitize 20 services in just over three years.
Another important factor was Iceland’s commitment to delivering services leveraging cloud technology. However, this was a significant undertaking for a small ministry that lacked the inherent capabilities and expertise to develop such a project internally. They set up a project team to assemble a group of technology industry specialists to drive the project forward.
The ministry took an innovative approach to resourcing the project. Rather than contract a single, large vendor offering the lowest bid price, the public tender aimed to select multiple specialist teams, from multiple vendors, each offering important capabilities and knowledge. Digital Iceland realized from the beginning that the fastest and most secure way to build digital services, was to build them in the cloud with modern best practices, such as infrastructure as code, DevOps, and continuous deployment.
The ministry appointed eighteen teams, each of between three and seven people. Andes was selected as an expert team in cloud infrastructure, DevOps, security, and compliance. Other teams were selected as experts in service development, web development, user experience, data, and data connectivity.
Our team was tasked with the crucial responsibility of creating a robust technical infrastructure and environment to facilitate the software teams deliver secure and efficient development.
This was expected to be a six-month project. However, plans quickly changed as a global pandemic came sweeping in: Digital Iceland sought to roll out support measures through digital services, such as support loans and domestic travel grants to stimulate the economy, as swiftly as possible. The timeline shrank. Andes quickly created a development environment and secure cloud-based infrastructure to enable the teams to develop the services in six to eight weeks instead of six months. This was possible only because ministries partnered with the dedicated tech teams.
One of the great benefits of a cloud-first policy is standardized solutions, meaning all teams are working in the same code base. The infrastructure we build is then available to other teams to use for different services.
An essential element of any digital transition is data interoperability, but without rigorous security measures in place, data can’t be shared. Therefore X-Road Data Exchange became a cornerstone of the project. Drawing on the experience of an open-source project pioneered in Estonia, Digital Iceland standardized, and simplified the safe publication and exchange of data.
Data interoperability also means services can be built across different organizations, which enhances the user experience. A crucial step forward came with the release of a web-services catalogue of data available within the government. All organizations within the public sector can now publish the services they provide, which enables other parties to access government data and build affiliated services.
Security is effectively built into the technology by cloud providers. All the infrastructure is in code, so that every change can be reviewed to make sure it complies with security guidelines.
Our security experts are certified by the cloud provider—in this case, Amazon Web Services (AWS)—to use the tools it provides. We support security and compliance with rules and standards, and we operate the technical environment that enables all development teams to work on the development and creation of new services. This allows as much infrastructure management as possible to be automated, while employing best practices in software development. This not only lowers costs — as organizations don’t have to do this themselves — but also enables services to be developed much faster, freeing up resources to be focused elsewhere.
After creating services related to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 20 services have been transformed, such as Digital Iceland Services, contributing to the country’s digital transformation journey. Among the team’s planned initiatives is a new service that would reduce paperwork for and streamline aspects of Iceland’s judicial system, yielding significant cost savings. Services from driving licenses, to health insurance applications, to operating licenses for hotels and restaurants, now operate through Digital Iceland’s portal. Access to government services via the web is now near-universal, and 38 percent of the population uses the Digital Iceland app.