Kirk Henry, CEO of iGovTT, explains how the creation of a culture of innovation at the island nation’s government IT company is supporting an ambitious acceleration of digitalized public services.
A single gift can sometimes inspire a career. At the age of 10, Kirk Henry received his first home computer — an 8-bit Commodore VIC-20, complete with 5KB of RAM. Now CEO of the National Information and Communication Technology Company or iGovTT, the technology arm of the Trinidad and Tobago government, he views that as a watershed moment.
“If not for that machine, I may not be sitting here today,” he says. “I’d connect it to the family TV and lose myself for hours writing code. It definitely shaped who I am and opened the world to me.”
As head of iGovTT — the company tasked with the procurement, project management and implementation of IT solutions for the government of Trinidad and Tobago — Henry has access to a computational capacity on a very different scale today. And he understands the power such access can bring and its potential for transforming the way the island nation’s people and businesses interact with the state and its services.
|Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city, Port of Spain (Image: Getty)|
One of the long-term aims of his organization is to develop “autonomous government.” Henry explains the vision: “I would like to get to the stage where citizens are not focused on having to take an action to access a service [at a particular point or event in their life]. Instead, the systems and supporting environment will push notifications as part of autonomous citizen services.”
He gives an example. A citizen turning 17 — the legal age for learning to drive in Trinidad and Tobago — would be sent a validation token to allow them to begin the process of applying for a driver’s permit, without having to contact the Licensing Authority to request the service, prove who they are and their eligibility.
Henry outlines that the aim is to both serve the citizen better and promote government productivity. And it’s a service that can be applied to many different moments of life: from birth, through different stages of education, entering the employment market and more.
A key to making this vision a reality is digital ID, he says, the introduction of which is high on the agenda of the Trinidad and Tobago government. “The digital ID initiative will take us further — and faster — along the digital transformation journey, and it will really support this whole notion of autonomous citizen services.”
Accelerating digital transformation
Autonomous citizen services will build upon the success of TTConnect, the online portal which allows citizens and businesses to proactively interact with government services. The portal already requires a TTConnect ID in order to register for standard digital services, such as online tax returns, housing applications, business registrations and even electronic birth certificates.
The Covid-19 pandemic has helped to accelerate the process of transitioning government services online, Henry explains. “To reduce face-to-face contact during the pandemic, we moved as many TTConnect services online as possible. We got very close to 100% of these TTConnect actions being performed online.”
Interestingly, even as Covid case rates have declined in Trinidad and Tobago and restrictions have been lifted, there was no large-scale migration back to in-person services at our TTconnect centers. “We saw use of these digital services take off and citizens now are looking for more to be placed online,” Henry says. “We have to be able to respond to these demands across government and we’re now seeing a lot of government ministries are bringing more and more services online too.”
Introducing online payment capabilities in March 2020 — for services ranging from birth and marriage certificates to filing patents — has also helped to accelerate this change. “Everybody at iGovTT was extremely proud of the work we did throughout this period. As tiring as it was, it was a really rewarding experience.”
Changing the culture
At least some of that impetus for change stems from Henry’s background in a very different business environment.
He came to the position in April 2018, making the transition to the public sector from the world of financial services, insurance and unit trusts. He describes his challenge as an IT leader during those private sector years as “herding cats” — managing fiercely competitive demands for scarce resources. At iGovTT, he has to take on a multidisciplinary approach to fulfil the requirements of the different governmental ministries that are his clients.
“It’s a multi-dimensional job which has elements of being a service provider, an internal IT function and [consultant with] a group-level view, where we contribute to the discussions that have national implications for ICT,” he says. “There’s never a dull moment.”
At iGovTT, one of the biggest challenges Henry faced on the digital transformation journey has been to change the mindset of the organization. “When I came into iGovTT, there was a general unwillingness to experiment and to learn from activities that may not have produced the desired outcome or fully lived up to their expected results,” Henry says.
“One of the things that I had to do was to work on that aspect of the culture, because being part of the technology landscape means we have to experiment when using technology to solve problems.”
This involved pushing an agenda which promotes creativity and encourages colleagues to pursue solutions that have the potential to add the greatest value to iGovTT’s government clients — rather than just the solutions that are most likely to succeed.
“It is more a process of changing people’s perceptions, rather than any specific challenges with the technology,” he adds.
One area where that new mindset was evident is at iGovTT’s hackathons. At the first of these in March 2019, student software engineers were invited to work autonomously on creative solutions to real-world problems faced by the public sector. And proving their value, two of the resulting applications are now in production.
Henry says: “It demonstrated the talent we have internally; the challenge now is to empower management to also transform, to adopt a more courageous stance, promote that culture of entrepreneurship and help facilitate our digital transformation.”
And he has no intention to take his foot off the pedal. “Over the next few years, we will be focused on digital transformation and establishing a strong operational backbone to facilitate those shared services across government. More and more government ministries see the value of digital technology — and our government leaders see it, which is the biggest endorsement we could ask for.
“We’re really committed to working towards making a difference and changing environments and lives, using technology,” says Henry. In much the same way a Commodore VIC-20 changed his.