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Sharing insight on shared service innovation: a fireside chat with Ireland’s Bernie Kelly

“There is a huge fear of failure of transformation in the public sector that doesn’t exist in the private sector”: Bernie Kelly in conversation with Siobhan Benita at the Global Government Fintech Lab 2024 in Dublin


Bernie Kelly is chief executive of Ireland‘s National Shared Service Office (NSSO), which provides human resources, payroll and pension, and finance and accounting services across the Global Government Fintech Lab 2024 host nation‘s government departments and public service bodies (PSBs).

She was promoted to the top just over six months ago, having joined the organisation – which employs more than 800 public servants across seven sites in four cities – in 2017 after a career in the private sector.

During a fireside chat titled ‘Public sector finance – shared service innovation’ Kelly discussed topics including technology’s transformational potential, the challenges of organisational change and public-private collaboration with former UK senior civil servant Siobhan Benita. 

‘Investing in new digital technologies’ is one of four goals in the NSSO’s ‘Statement of Strategy 2023 – 2026’, which defines this as ‘exploiting the full potential of modern technological platforms, systems and solutions’.

The strategy references a ‘need to invest in next-generation technology to improve both the quality and speed of our services’. Specific aims include the deployment of cloud technology ‘where possible’ and use of artificial intelligence (AI) to ‘become a centre of expertise in Robotic Process Automation’.

NSSO (Ireland): four goals for 2023-2026
Goal 1: Deliver excellent shared corporate services
Goal 2: Engage, enable and empower our people
Goal 3: Invest in new digital technologies
Goal 4: Champion shared services across the public sector
Source: NSSO ‘Statement of Strategy 2023 – 2026’ (July 2023)

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NSSO’s expanding remit

Kelly began by describing the remit of the NSSO, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to provide services to more than 50 central government departments and PSBs.

A relatively new organisation, having been “born out of the economic downturn of 2011” and formed as part of a ‘Public Sector Reform Programme’, the NSSO operates on a “common and proven” business model, she said. “It was put in place to provide that ‘value proposition’ – to provide those end-to-end services to our clients.”

The NSSO serves “40,000 to 50,000” people from an HR perspective and handles payroll for more than 160,000 payees, including both current and retired civil servants.

Its finance shared services remit was added two years ago (April 2022). The work programme includes the replacement of 31 finance systems with a centralised, standardised accounting and finance service on a single technology platform to 48 different organisatons.

Deployment is taking place in four stages or ‘waves’. “We’ve gone live with the first eight entities,” Kelly explained. “When we bring the bodies and departments on board for wave two, we’ll be 50 per cent there in terms of volume [of payments].”

As the NSSO progresses through these waves, its capacity and efficiency in processing billions of payments and transactions will significantly impact the efficiency and scale of its services.

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‘Diverse set of client departments’

Asked to share insights into the challenges and benefits of rolling out and integrating innovative technologies, Kelly reflected on the complexity involved with the current finance and reporting systems used by Irish state entities.

Replacing disparate and traditional systems – and “in some areas very significant manual and still paper-based processes” – with a single standardised technology platform requires standardising processes “end to end” across departments and integrating “robust” financial controls.

But new and harmonised technology cannot in itself remedy underlying process inefficiencies, with Kelly emphasising the importance of process standardisation as a prerequisite for successful digital transformation. “Fundamentally, until we standardise those processes as best as we can, the technology won’t be the answer,” she said.

“Change is difficult, we all know that,” she said. “It’s all about engagement, it’s about ensuring that we do that at the scale and the timeline that we can facilitate, and at the pace that each of the departments can come with us.”

“We have a diverse set of client departments, which all have a very diverse business need themselves, we have a diverse set of customers – but also here in the public service we’re here to deliver value. That has to be at the forefront of what we do,” she said.

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AI: ‘here to stay’

Siobhan Benita and Bernie Kelly during their fireside chat at Global Government Fintech Lab in Dublin on 25 April 2024

Kelly was asked about the NSSO’s interest in AI.

“It’s here to stay – we all hear about it every day in terms of its huge potential but also the great risks that come along with that,” she responded.    

Emphasising the importance of alignment with wider government thinking and – with Ireland being a member of the 27-member European Union (EU) – the recently passed EU AI Act, she spoke of “leveraging generative AI” with the objective of “streamlining our service” and “providing value for the customer”.

“Our customers and our users are expecting to be able to interface with us and to do business with us through AI,” she said.

Internally, the NSSO intends to leverage AI to improve efficiencies. Kelly outlined a vision of implementing a ‘service management layer’ that prioritises ease of access, addressing “bugbears” about login procedures.

“In the months ahead we’ll be looking to see how we can go with [a] minimum viable product, how we can start slow, how we can test that and grow with that, and what benefits that will bring for our customers,” she said.

She cited examples of AI applications in fraud detection, highlighting its potential to identify patterns and enhance security measures related to payments. But she emphasised the importance of proceeding with caution to harness AI’s benefits “in a secure manner”.


‘Huge fear of failure of transformation’

Kelly’s private-sector experience was gained in finance and accounting-related roles at Cambridge Diagnostics, Nortel Networks and Avaya.

Reflecting on the NSSO’s collaboration with external companies, she highlighted ongoing efforts to explore new technologies and improve service delivery, particularly in the ‘service management layer’.

“We are working with a number of companies just at a ‘discovery’ level to determine what types of service are out there and how we could use them,” she said.   

She has observed a prevailing hesitancy within the public sector to fully embrace change. “There is a huge fear of failure of transformation in the public sector that doesn’t exist in the private sector,” she said. “It’s for very good reasons, and I completely understand that. But I think there are better ways in which we could engage with the private sector.”

She underscored the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration in driving technological evolution and modernising public services, calling for greater understanding from the private sector of the “nuances” of the public sector. “Our raison d’être is very different,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons why I joined.”

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‘Huge opportunities’ ahead

As the fireside chat drew to a close, Kelly reflected on her own transition to the role of chief executive, acknowledging both the familiarity engendered by her years to date with the organisation and fresh challenges inherent to her position at its helm.

“The role of head of any organisation can be very lonely, but the support that I’ve received from my own staff and leadership team has been hugely significant,” she said.

Kelly highlighted the dynamic nature of her role, saying that she was “surprised every day”, and expressed gratitude for her appointment to lead the organisation at what she described as an ‘inflection point’.

“I think the NSSO is at an inflection point in terms of its development, in terms of where it can go and its maturity,” she said, talking of “huge opportunities” in the coming years “in terms of where we can extend and improve our services”.

She underscored what she described as the NSSO’s three interdependent ‘values’ of prioritising people, fostering process and digital innovation, and delivering “service excellence always”.

The challenge, she said, was striking a balance between focusing on day-to-day operations and future-focused development. “It’s a balancing act between keeping the operations going while keeping an eye on the future, the eye on the prize, and continuing to develop,” she said.

We expect to upload a session video recording here shortly.