How governments can make the digital transformation journey – from Barbados to Iceland

By on 29/02/2024 | Updated on 29/02/2024

Iceland and Barbados might seem very different. They are about 4,000 miles apart and have wildly different climates for a start. However, as two small island nations with similar populations, it turns out there is much that the Barbados government can learn from Iceland – about digital transformation in particular.

This, the fifth and final episode of series 1 of our Government Transformed podcast – supported by knowledge partner Visa – was recorded during a three-day Global Government Forum-organised study tour which saw a delegation from Barbados visit Iceland.

Vigdís Jóhannsdóttir, chief marketing officer of Digital Iceland, Marva Howell, permanent secretary of the Barbados Ministry of Innovation, Science and Smart Technology, and Kevin Cunnington, former chief of the UK Government Digital Service – who led the study tour – speak to podcast host Siobhan Benita from Reykjavík about successes, lessons and just how important it is for governments to share what works with each other.

Listen to learn how Iceland moved from 20th to 5th place in the UN e-Government Development Index, the challenges Barbados has faced in getting from digital transformation strategy to implementation, and how Iceland’s government can help.

Like many countries, as Howell explains, “Barbados started with what some may consider an over-ambitious digital transformation process by wanting to achieve too many things at the same time”.

During the tour, the team in Iceland helped the Barbados delegation by sharing best practice, pitfalls to be avoided, and why they believe that sometimes it pays to take risks.

“We’ve been learning a lot, and we’re recognising too that while we have our strategies in place, it’s important to have action plans and execution plans as well, and to actually start rolling them out,” Howell says.

“In Barbados, we tend to be a bit risk-averse, but we have to start somewhere and correct any errors as we go along.”

The philosophy of Digital Iceland, as Jóhannsdóttir explains, is not to be “afraid to make decisions” and to “try things” – going ahead with 60% or 70% of the puzzle pieces in place, testing and giving officials “the space to be able to step back if [they] need to fix things”.

She admits this is not a typical way of working for civil servants but says: “We really believe it is important to be able to make those mistakes because then we don’t move forward with something that’s not working. And we can really learn by doing.”

Communication is key  

During the tour, Iceland also shared with Barbados how its digital government efforts are making citizens’ lives easier whilst at the same time relieving pressure on the environment. For example, for certain services, it had been necessary for citizens to drive an average of 15km to a government office to attain the necessary paperwork and then the same distance back.

Digitising such services saves citizens’ and officials’ time, as well as saving on car emissions. And communicating that to the public – giving a tangible example of how government is working to make their lives, and the country, better – is key to getting the population on board with digital government.

Communication is, Jóhannsdóttir explains, key to her role.

“Being in a small country, I think that’s something that Barbados can relate to. You need to have very many different types of hats – you need to kind of be a Swiss army knife.”

The title of chief marketing officer is too narrow, she says. Her role is not only building trust through communication and education internally, within government ministries, but also externally, demonstrating to the public that the government is “putting the user at the centre of everything we do”.

Building trust is equally important in Barbados. “We have to continuously work on that in terms of our public awareness and sensitisation,” Howell says.

“The Barbadian public, they will hold you [to it] if anything goes wrong, but they start to accept that these things are necessary to simplify their lives, so that they will not have to go and stand in long lines or wait for services.

“We must look to improve our messages, our PR, to the public so that they don’t go and get information from naysayers – they recognise what the government is trying to do will be beneficial to them.”

As Cunnington said in the first episode of this series, and is a running theme throughout, what digital transformation comes down to, primarily, is people.

“Seeing it here on a smaller scale, you realise how important marketing is,” Cunnington commented.

And I think that the whole Barbadian delegation have been struck by how much they need someone like Vigdís on their own team – a chief marketing officer specialising in different ways of marketing and promoting not just classic government ‘follow us’ kind of scenarios, but the kind of consensus building. They’ve given people confidence to move [the digital agenda] forward.”

Paying it forward

Also touching on difficulties attracting and retaining digital talent and the merits of specialist training academies, collaboration, and what’s next for both countries, this is an episode that showcases just how beneficial it is for one nation to learn from another.

As Jóhannsdóttir says, Iceland’s motivation for hosting Barbados on the study tour is to “pay it forward”.

“We’re a small country as well, we had to learn very quickly how to do things… And we have learned from the best, we’ve looked at the playbooks of other countries [Estonia, the UK and others] so if there’s anything we can share, we want to do that.”

“I hope this is the start of many more of these types of exchanges,” podcast host Siobhan Benita concludes.

Subscribe to Government Transformed on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts or Acast and go to GGF’s podcast page for updates.  

Previous episodes:

Episode 1: The difference between digitalisation and true transformation in government
Episode 2: Making digital transformation happen in government: from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’
Episode 3: How the centre of government can be an enabler – not a blocker – of public service digital transformation
Episode 4: Why building trust is the foundation of successful digital transformation in government

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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