A lot done, more to do
1 April 2005 | 0
In recent years, Ireland has been widely praised for its commitment towards rolling out e-government services. Since the formation of the Information Society Commission way back in 1997, successive governments have shown varying degrees of support for e-government. With regard to the current administration, An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern may have been criticised for indecision on several issues, but when it comes to recognising the need for e-government, his administration has generally tended to get the thumbs up.
Lately though, people have begun to question the sitting government’s commitment to e-government. Critics point out that identifying the need for e-government is one thing; rolling out real online services is a different matter. Some argue that the government’s slowdown in implementing these services shows that the present administration is merely paying lip service when it speaks of its dedication to e-government.
Compared to many other countries, Ireland has done reasonably well in rolling out services thus far. The country came first in the EU eGovernment’s tables in both 2001 and 2002 and was ranked 10th in Accenture’s 2002 Global e-government survey. Additionally, the state’s e-government implementation agency, Reach recently received an honourable mention in the eEurope awards for e-Government for its Inter-Agency Messaging Service (IAMS).
However, the slowness in launching key initiatives such as the Public Service Broker system, led to a slight fall in this year’s Accenture survey rankings. Moreover, an e-government survey conducted by iQ Content back in January revealed that the nation’s e-government initiative is experiencing considerable difficulties, with many state agencies having neither the time nor the resources to implement a proper e-government strategy.
So does this mean that Ireland’s e-government initiative is slowly falling apart or has the present administration simply lost interest in the project? Neither according to Sean Shine, Accenture’s director of government consulting in Ireland. He suggests that it is wrong to assume that the country has taken its foot off the pedal with regard to e-government.
‘You’d get the impression from reading the papers over the past few months that e-government in Ireland has come to a complete stop, that there’s nothing happening,’ says Shine. ‘But I don’t believe that’s the case, it just doesn’t have the profile it did 18 months ago.’
Shine points out that much of the work going on in rolling out e-government services is going on out of sight. ‘E-government is not just about putting things out on the Internet,’ he says. ‘There’s a perception that e-government is just about throwing services on to the Net, but there’s an awful lot of work done internally on streamlining processes before electronic services can be delivered. I see a lot of people doing things behind the scenes but it’s like an iceberg; people don’t get to see most of the work that is being done.’
Shine is also quick to point out that surveys like the Accenture Global e-government study offer a comparative view of how countries are doing in implementing e-government and therefore as more nations begin to develop strategies, they’re beginning to catch up with early adopters like Ireland. Shine says: ‘the fact that Ireland dropped from 10th to 11th place in the rankings doesn’t mean that Ireland has stopped developing e-government. The country is still in the same middle ranking group that it was before, behind leading adopters such as Canada, the US, and Singapore, but ahead of a number of nations who are at the early stages of implementation of services’.
Microsoft Ireland’s group manager of the public sector division, Derrick McCourt, is also convinced that the state’s roll out of e-government services is proceeding well, despite the delays in launching some flagship services. ‘I think that Ireland still ranks highly in terms of e-readiness and has a good public service strategy in play which will take the nation to the place it needs to be,’ says McCourt. ‘There’s been well documented problems with getting the Broker project off the ground but the procurement seems to be going ahead again. I’d argue that the government is keeping to the same strategy but delivering it in smaller chunks.’
McCourt is also dismissive of the idea that it should be somehow easier for Ireland to roll out services than other countries simply because of our size. He says: ‘I think that there’s an automatic assumption that because Ireland is a small nation, e-government is somehow less complex, but this isn’t true. From a structural perspective alone, Ireland probably has as many government departments as a larger country like the UK, but at the same time, has fewer resources.’
He continues: ‘however, despite this, if you look at basic steps to e-government then we’re in a good position. The challenge from here on in is governance — actually having an administration that can apply policy change across government and get buy-in from all the different sectors. That’s a challenge for all governments and is usually the place where e-government falls down’.
Ireland may have a great reputation as being pro e-government which stretches back over a number of years. But not everybody is convinced that Ireland is taking the initiative. There are some critics who believe that while it is good to see the state actively rolling out online e-government services, it should also be focusing on a wider e-government agenda that isn’t built solely around Internet delivery.
At a recent press briefing to mark the launch of a new software suite for SMEs, Oracle Ireland’s vice-president and managing director, Nicky Sheridan told assembled journalists that given the Republic’s assumption of the EU presidency next year, ‘..the state should be positioning Ireland as a showcase for e-government rather than just focusing on ticking the relevant boxes’.
Asked to comment further on this, Sheridan told ComputerScope, that EU governments (including Ireland) seemed to be putting all their energies into meeting requirements set out by the EU rather than attempting to draw up innovative e-government strategies.
‘The EU benchmarking process for e-government that has identified 20 key services to be online, has led to all EU governments trying to tick these boxes to show themselves in a good light against their neighbours because there is now a common benchmark,’ he said. ‘There is a school of though that these benchmarks are too limited and should not focus just on Internet delivery. It is these that get the spotlight because these are the ones on which the benchmarking tables are produced — the ones that have seen Ireland first or second in every survey. Other e-government surveys from organisations such as IDC have tended to put us in the middle of these at best — this would indicate that perhaps other governments are focusing on a wider e-government agenda.’
Sheridan makes it clear that there has been significant progress in implementing e-government here, but he worries that we may not be seeing the broader picture. As with some other industry figures, he believes that the government is too focused on delivering services via the Internet and ignoring alternative distribution channels such as Digital Television or even text messaging.
Moreover, Sheridan is also concerned that the current economic climate may lead the state to invest in the wrong solutions for short-term reasons. ‘There is a real danger out there right now in too much emphasis being put on “cost” when evaluating e-government solutions’ he says. ‘Government departments tend to focus on their annual budgets and this sometimes forces them into making short-term decisions instead of evaluating cost over the longer term. We all know that what is presented as a low-cost option in the short-term often ends up costing more in the long term. You get what you pay for’.
eGovernment: the story so far…and what’s in store
Despite the delay in implementing some key e-government initiatives, Ireland is faring pretty well in transferring its services online. Moreover, while many citizens may be aware of some of the things they can do via the Net, much of the work in rolling out services has been going on behind the scenes.
Some but not all of this labour has been at the infrastructural level and is aimed at speeding up communication between various departments and agencies. The Inter-Agency Messaging Service (IAMS) for example, is a system that allows for the automatic exchange of information on events like births, deaths and marriages from the General Register Office to the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Central Statistics Office (CSO). The service, which has been implemented by the Reach agency, recently won an honourable mention at the eEurope Awards.
The much heralded e-Cabinet system which will provide for electronic circulation of memoranda, briefing documents and the government agenda before Cabinet meetings, as well as access to documents during meetings via touch-screen terminals, is currently at the consultancy stage. Meanwhile, procurement for the delayed Public Services Broker system, an electronic broker that will act as a helper or assistant between customers and Public Service Agencies, is nearing completion.
In regard to online services that are to be launched soon, there is the Department of Agriculture’s IMAP (Integrated Mapping and Area Payments) System, a single integrated database system that is responsible for distributing aid to Irish farmers. Already in use, the system will soon be extended to allow farmers to supply documentation online. Also coming shortly will be the option to renew motor tax online as well as the ability to apply for a passport via the Net.
Some services have of course been available online for some time but there’s been little or no real innovation since ComputerScope looked at e-government in action this time last year. The Revenue Commissioners website (www.revenue.ie) has won plaudits around the world for its online service and it continues to draw in users who prefer to sort out their tax online.
The Reach portal (www.reachservices.ie) has a repository of application forms for a wide range of services available, but little else. The Department of Finance’s e-tenders website (www.e-tenders.ie) is a great source of information about government contracts on offer. However, whereas it may be great for alerting businesses to new contracts coming up, they still can’t actually submit the tenders online. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) is releasing data from the 2002 census on its website as it becomes available and the Companies Registration Office is now allowing companies to file information electronically. Individuals can apply and pay for their driving test online at the Department of the Environment and Local Government’s website www.drivingtest.ie.
Also worthy of mention is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment’s online redundancy calculator which allows users to calculate a statutory redundancy entitlement for a qualified employee, who has been dismissed because of redundancy; the Land Registry’s Electronic Access Service (EAS) system allows agents to gain access to details on pending applications etc. A total of 46,263 transactions were carried out via the EAS in July alone, with traffic being driven by an increased amount of information available on the EAS as a result of the Registry’s Document Imaging and Data Capture Programmes.