Survival Guide -- Perspectives from the field: Des Vincent, chief information officer for Northern Ireland

Des Vincent

Northern Ireland government

When it comes to implementing e-government, Des Vincent, chief information officer for Northern Ireland, faces a different challenge than CIOs in the United States. That's because the key e-gov tool for Northern Ireland citizens is not the Internet, but the telephone.

"The majority of people who need government services are the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled ? the people least likely to have the technology ? and they like to talk to someone about their case," Vincent said.

The Northern Ireland government was created in 1998 with the Multi-Party Negotiations between the British and Irish governments. A new legislative assembly and 11 departments were established to serve its 1.5 million citizens.

In this situation, e-government, as it is seen in the United States, is not a high priority, but it is a growing issue, according to Vincent. Initiatives are under way, and as the new government matures, he is sure it will become even more important.

During a visit to the United States in June, Vincent spoke about his e-gov philosophy and why it is important to Northern Ireland with Senior Editor Nick Wakeman.

WT: How are you approaching e-government?

Vincent: Modernizing government is in our vocabulary. We know we want to do it, and we know it is important. But it will take a little time to get there.

We have stuff going on. We're addressing internal issues such as the technical infrastructure. We are moving from every department having its own network that runs around the country to having one network with high-speed broadband connecting every major town in Northern Ireland. To provide services externally, we need to be connected internally.

Another issue is the info-structure: What information do we need to provide better service? A lot of that information is already in the government, so how do we capture it? Why should one part of government ask for information from a citizen that is already held elsewhere in government?

It might be simpler for us to do because we are smaller than the United States, but it's still not easy.

WT: Are your challenges different than those faced by U.S. governments?

Vincent: Internet connectivity is low in Northern Ireland. The focus in the United States is so much on the use of the Internet. But the key technology for our public in dealing with the government is the telephone, not the Internet. The Internet will be important to the people answering the telephone so they can provide better service.

But the majority of people who need government services are the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled ? the people least likely to have the technology ? and they like to talk to someone about their case.

We've got to educate and enable government employees with technology and empower them so they can help when the public calls. Our vision is that citizens' concerns are satisfied on their first contact with government.

We have an 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of the telephone calls should have satisfaction at that first point of contact. And the 20 percent would be the more complex cases that get handed off to specialists.

WT: What is the key to attaining this?

Vincent: Making better use of information is vital. It is going to take us five to 10 years. But if we in government used what we already know about our customers, we'd be better off.

Why can't we have events that trigger actions, such as a birth? Why doesn't that trigger things in government? There is a new child in this family, what does this mean? This is information we already have. We can make better use of information we already hold and simplify interactions between government and citizens.

I really want to get to the stage where, when we download a form, it is already pre-populated with information. To do that, we need authentication. We need to know who we are dealing with.

WT: What are you doing to get agencies to work together and share information?

Vincent: We've created a common fund in which people working together across boundaries can bid. We set two priorities for the fund: infrastructure, so everyone benefits; and cross-departmental projects. We created it by taking a slice off the top of the budget, so each department gets a little less.

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