What if Ireland ran itself like a digital start-up?

25 Apr 2016

If firms dithered the way the politicians have over forming a government they would have long gone out of business. What if Ireland worked like a start-up?

Even 100 years after the 1916 Rising, Ireland is still a young country. Maybe it’s time to stop doing things wrong and just decide to do them right. Maybe it’s time to think like a start-up, suggests John Kennedy.

Things have never been better! That is the caustic joke most people make when they reflect that approximately 60 days after a General Election, Ireland still has no Government. The reality is things are broken and not being fixed, especially when you consider an enduring housing crisis and the haunting thought that every day a new child somewhere in the State has to go to school and pretend to their friends and bullies they are not homeless.

As two monolith political parties whose origins go back to the tumultuous Civil War that came in the wake of the Rising hammer out their differences over another legacy of poor planning and communication – Irish Water – maybe it is time to think differently.

I reflected on this as I held my most recent Irish Water bill in my hand and resolved to treasure the document as something perhaps my descendants will laugh over in a 100 years time as an example of folly. I actually believe water as a resource should be paid for, but the way the saga was managed has caused bitter divisions.

Either way, the reality is this: if a business dithered the way the politicians have dithered, the business would be wound down by now.

Last week, I was in Amsterdam to attend the Uprise Festival, a start-up extravaganza organised by Irishman Paul O’Connell. Riding through the streets in a taxi, I marvelled at the infrastructure and the sight of healthy people cycling along footpaths bigger than some of our own streets back home, overpasses that swept over districts without disturbing their charm. Most of all I was struck by the can-do, fearless and direct attitude of the people and “why not?” was a refrain I heard a lot. My taxi driver informed me that people in The Netherlands pay high taxes for their infrastructure. But it’s a two-sided coin – if the driver buckled his wheel on a road that should have been pristine it is accepted as part of the public contract that he could sue and be sufficiently compensated.

I reflected how I’ve lost two tyres in the last two years on bad roads and seemingly my motor tax pays for a leaky water infrastructure instead. What public contract?

Recently, two articles caught my eye that caused me to wonder, could we do it all differently. Both articles concerned the Baltic state of Estonia, which after years of Soviet domination suddenly found itself independent after Glasnost. When they left, the Soviets took pretty much anything that couldn’t be bolted down but left the people with a fantastic legacy in terms of education, especially maths and science.

The first article in VentureBeat described how Estonia, which only has a population of 1.3m, has embraced the digital age and the government has become an incubator of ideas and concepts around citizenship, security, virtual business and education. It was one of the first countries in the world, for example, to roll out 100pc broadband. Government documents accept digital signatures, residents can vote at home online and citizens are informed if there is any change to their data on government databases.

The country has embraced digital to kickstart its own economy. A quick, agile and nimble government led by 36-year-old Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas is bravely pursuing new ideas, under a sweeping e-Estonia initiative. Among the ideas is an ambitious e-Residency programme that has already attracted 10,000 global entrepreneurs who can establish businesses in Estonia and run them anywhere in the world. While this doesn’t give the entrepreneurs actual citizenship or create a tax haven, it is all about efficiency in terms of legal and banking services and encouraging entrepreneurs to launch their businesses from Estonia.

According to The Guardian, Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves claims to have reverse-engineered The End of Work, a bestseller by Jeremy Rifkin, arguing that the information age will undermine large-scale production – and has aimed to turn Estonia’s diminuitive size and population into a powerhouse of opportunity and innovation for the Baltic state.

This means equipping and training a high-tech workforce of would-be entrepreneurs with the skills, infrastructure and opportunity to command their own destiny in a world that is changing by the day.

While I have never been to Estonia, and only time will tell if these brave digital policies will benefit the country in the long term, I admire its spirit.

Let’s change the world today

As I reflect on the recent elections in Ireland, I wonder does this kind of innovative thinking flow from our own recently-elected politicians? I don’t know any one of these people personally, but I don’t remember anything from their campaigns that was innovative, groundbreaking or, in fact, anything different from the heyday of Fianna Fail/Fine Gael rivalry in the 1980s except for the increased employment of social media. And still I haven’t noted any new or novel schemes or ideas aimed at igniting change or empowering people.

Ireland is still a young country – yes, one with an epic ancient history – but a young republic by the world’s standards.

It was a young country when it committed in the late 1920s to build the Ardnacrusha dam to electrify the State, committing over one-third of the national coffers to the project. Now that was revolutionary.

The demise of Michael Collins in the Civil War has prompted many questions about what would have happened if Collins, equally adept as a finance minister as he was a revolutionary, had lived. Some in the past have speculated that an inward investment boom not unlike that which began in the 1990s, seeding the Celtic Tiger, may have occurred. Indeed, didn’t Henry Ford set up his first European car manufacturing facility in Cork in 1917?

The possibilities are endless, but, in this dimension, the early promise of a new republic was squandered in a kind of dark ages Ireland dominated by religion, isolationism and emigration. The light didn’t return until the progressive policies of Lemass and TK Whitaker in the 1960s granted every child an education and opened up global trade. And yet we are still unraveling the early mistakes of a young republic.

Imagine if Ireland ran itself as a start-up?

Observing the gutsy have-a-go attitude of Dutch start-ups and ruminating on the brave new world spirit of Estonia, I have to be fair and say Ireland isn’t doing too badly on the digital front.

Every global tech giant is here, from Facebook to Apple, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Intel, and the start-up spirit of the past few years has been unparalleled.

In terms of digital services, the Revenue Online System is considered one of the finest in the world and my favourite service is the Motor Tax online service, which cuts out a lot of unnecessary queuing. A recent passport application process kept me on top of when my new document would arrive. And the National Broadband Plan, if successful, will by 2020 make Ireland one of the most broadband-enabled countries on Earth. This will have an electrifying effect in terms of empowering citizens and creating economic opportunities, especially new jobs.

But we still have a medical system that is costing billions every year and in its space can be rightly termed the “sick man of Europe”, potholed roads, a spiraling homelessness problem and a vicious and violent gang war that is out of control.

The opportunity to do things better, more nimbly and agilely is always there, someone just needs to grasp the nettle. Maybe the world of start-ups could teach the overlords in government departments that the State should run more fluidly with public buy-in.

Here are some ideas I have:

Crowdfund public projects: people already pay enough taxes, but what if new projects and services proposed by members of the Dáil or civil service to be paid for out of the public purse could achieve public buy-in first – like a new playground in a town, a new school, recycling facilities – via a crowdfunding style process. If citizens were given a notional value to back investments in their area they consider worthwhile, like much-needed services for children with autism, it could be a good way to test the reception of new facilities, float new ideas and help the public feel empowered and engaged in the governing of their own country.

Pitch, don’t bitch: start-up battlefields exist all over the world and often it means pitching your idea in front of crowds who will either yay or nay an idea. Rather than leave new ideas for local areas to musty town council meetings, perhaps a form of public engagement could involve an element where new ideas are introduced to councils after a public pitch by citizens in a town square concept? Ideas that achieve the crowd’s acclaim can be brought to the next level at local council meetings. This could also have the effect of engaging younger people in the civil management of their country, spawning a youthful generation of administrators and politicians.

Lean methodologies: Lean start-up is a method for creating businesses coined by Eric Ries, aimed at shortening the product development lifecycle. Ries posits that if start-ups invest their time into iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures. Imagine this way of doing things rather than creating yet another unnecessary quango or pouring millions into projects that don’t or won’t work.

Actionable metrics: rather than politicians or departments covering their backsides with rosy reports trying to project the best PR image possible of a situation, how about from the start agreeing metrics in the public’s eye that will inform how a project is going in real-time and then keeping the public informed? If it is obvious something isn’t working, take action. Be accountable.

Minimal Viable Products (MVP): in the start-up world, one of the most important milestones is achieving an MVP, showing a product in as close to working order to communicate the concept but also show it working. Rather than spend millions on reports, dynamic teams of civil servants could build an MVP first and see if the public likes it or will use it.

Pivot: if something doesn’t work in the start-up world, founders have to change the plan or the business dies. While accepting the wheels of State turn slower than the business world, people in charge of projects should at the same time be fully accountable and, if a project or service is turning out disastrously, pivot with reason.

Treat citizens as customers: there are all kinds of citizens – most notably those who contribute to society and those who don’t. Either way, every citizen is also a customer of the State. Rather than dictate policy from behind closed doors, every project or policy should come with a value proposition and a customer feedback loop should established.

Ireland is at times a shining example of what the world can do right and at times a glaring example of what not to do.

But it is a small country and there is no reason for things not to be done in an agile way. Maybe the start-up State can learn something from its own entrepreneurs?

Irish flag on a brick wall image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years