e-Learning curve for the gov

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1 April 2005 | 0

While Ireland may still lead the way in e-government, the Oireachtas, government departments, local authorities and semi-state agencies have a long way to go before truly interactive e-government services are delivered.

Ever since www.Oireachtas.ie went online in 1998, this particular government Website has been a favourite of mine. True, I may be a political saddo, but I have taken my own delight in having free and easy access to a searchable archive of every parliamentary utterance in Dáil and Seanad Éireann, since the time of the meeting of the first Dáil on the 21st of January 1919.

The Website www.oireactas-debates.gov.ie was a great resource for me when researching my book, ‘The Story of the Irish Pub, an intoxicating history of the licenced trade’. Among the licensing trivia I discovered was the fact that Irish politicians first debated the price of a pint in their own parliament in October 1922.

 

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Since I completed my research, the Oireachtas.ie Website has been improved. Much more refined searches are now possible and the site is also updated far more frequently.

Earlier this year, while working for the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, I was infuriated by the fact that the Oireachtas Website was particularly slow at putting written replies to Dáil questions online. Sometimes it took days for a written Dáil reply to go on the Website and this always seemed to coincide with the announcement of bad news for the unemployed. Today, verbal utterances in the Dáil and Seanad are uploaded every hour and a half, when the Houses of the Oireachtas are in session, while written replies to questions usually appear within 24 hours of being issued. Why it still takes longer for a written reply to appear on the Website, I still don’t know. Nevetheless, www.oireachtas.ie is, in my opinion, one of the best parliamentary Websites in the world.

Another relatively long-established Irish e-government resource is the online statute book maintained by the Attorney-General’s office. Easy to use and easy to search, this particular Website is a must for amateur and professional lawyers alike. My only quibble with it is that the Attorney-General hasn’t chosen to give it a user friendly name like ‘www.statutes.ie’, instead only a numeric URL, 193.120.124.98, is used.

By way of comparison, in the UK the online database of parliamentary debates and the online database of national statutes go back only to 1988.

Oasis and Basis

Another extremely useful online resource is provided by Comhairle’s Oasis project which provides a wide range of online information organised in terms of ‘life events’ and ranging from birth, education, employment, housing, relationships, emigration and immigration, illness, retirement and death/bereavement. Oasis, based on an acronym for ‘online access to service, information and support’ is a great place for looking for information about dealing with the bureaucracy of the state, but the URL www.oasis.gov.ie isn’t what you would immediately type into your navigation bar when looking for the site.

The problem is that when Comhairle came up with the snappy ‘OASIS’ acronym, the site www.oasis.ie had already been taken by the Oasis Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of water coolers.

The Department of Education and Science has a similar problem with www.des.ie, which has already been blagged by Diesel Engineering Services, a company based in Shercock, Cavan.

According to the ‘about us’ section of www.oasis.gov.ie, ‘in time, the website will also act as a portal or gateway to services’. This ComputerScope review can affirm that that time has not yet come. Try as we might to apply for grants or licences online, there was very little opportunity to do that online. In most cases where forms were available to download as a Word document or a PDF, there was no facility to submit them online—citizens were required to print out the documents and pop them in the post.

Whoever was in charge with devising e-government Website acronyms had better luck with ‘Business Access to State Information & Services’, which managed to secure the URL www.basis.ie before it was snaffled by the Basis Corporation of America or Basis Homefurnishings in Limavaddy. The Basis Website is definitely worth a trawl for anybody in business. It’s organised in an efficient manner with sub-categories prioritised in a way that maximises navigational efficiency. On the left hand side of the home page there is a column listing topics organised in terms of a business’s life-cycle with topics ranging from ‘Approaching Venture Capitalists’ to implementing redundancies.

The bulk of the home page is dominated by four main links to: A ‘Service Locator’, to help business users make contact with national, local and semi-state service providers and agencies such as the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS, County Development Boards and Enterprise Ireland; a ‘Download Bank’ of commonly used application forms and ‘other useful documents’; a ‘Latest News’ window and a link to ‘Doing Business Online’.

Transactions

That last link leads to an unlucky listing of 13 sites featuring Irish e-government in action. The first Website listed is www.reachservices.ie, which is aimed at ‘connecting people with public services’. Once you are registered with Reachservices, you are promised the ability to download and submit a wide variety of application forms for government support, services and licences. Unfortunately, when this review was being compiled, the Reachservices Homepage ‘What’s New Section’ was a bit of a joke.

It featured a hyperlink entitled ‘Going for a holiday in Europe? Need an E111 form?’. Clicking on the link brought me to a page featuring a list of links named after each of the area health boards, plus a link marked ‘Eastern Health Shared Services’. Clicking on the East Coast Area Health Board and the Eastern Heath Shared Services in search of an E111 form proved fruitless, yet curiously it was possible to download an E111 on all the pages connected to hyperlinks for every other health board in the country.

There are other areas where the organisation of Reachservices is plain silly: Following the link marked ‘Online applications for government services available here’ takes you to a page with a link plainly marked ‘Grants’, but when you click on that you are taken to a page entitled ‘Browse by Service’ but which provides only one solitary link to the marked ‘Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands’ where you will find downloadable documents marked ‘Application for a licence to dive on sites covered by the provisions of the National Monuments Act 1987’; ‘Application for a licence to excavate’; ‘Application for consent to use a detection device’; ‘Application for permit/certificate to import, export species of wild fauna and flora’ and ‘Application form for scheme to speak Irish’—there is not a grant application form in sight.

As it turns out, a whole load of grant application forms are available on the Reachservices.ie site, but you have to navigate to them via a hierarchy that lists individual local authorities. If you go via the ‘environment’ section for example, clicking on an individual local authority link will lead you to a hodge-podge of 24 application forms ranging from the Amenity Grants Scheme to Applications for the Erection of Headstones and Kerbs.

Before you can submit any online application forms to any government department or agency via Reachservices.ie, you must register with the Website in advance. At time of going to press, I had not yet received my Reachservices ‘Account Activation Code’ in the post, so I am unable to comment on the ease of submitting online application forms. However, there are a few quirks to the registration process. You are given a choice of personal titles that go beyond the usual indications as to whether you are a male, a married female, an unmarried female or a female who keeps her marital status private. The full range of reachservice.ie titles is: Br, Cad, Capt, Cdt, Dr, Fr, Gda, Inion, Lt, Miss, Mothr, Mr, Mrs, Ms, Mst, Rev and Sr. This raises some interesting questions: Why is it that the only Irish-language personal title allowed is that of an unmarried female?; Why do captains and commandants get to use their military titles, but generals do not? and What does the title ‘Mst’ mean, if it isn’t the misplaced half of the abbreviation for ‘Most Reverend’, the title usually used exclusively by bishops?

Smelling of ROSes

The second e-government service listed at www.basis.ie it the Revenue Online Service (ROS), which is easily the best implementation of an e-government service so far. ROS is easy to master, with excellent audio-visual demonstrations for beginners. In comparison to my ongoing wait for an access code from Reachservices.ie, within 24 hours of applying to use the service, my unique ROS access number (RAN) was delivered in the post. As a bonus, like all other ROS users, I was given a few extra days to file my tax return this year!

Although ROS has a secure online payments system in place, the Local Authorities and Local Government Computer Services Board has not yet delivered a ‘security policy and architecture for the local government sector’. This is also despite the fact that An Post’s excellent Website www.billpay.ie allows citizens to make secure online payments to 65 different agencies and companies. This failure to provide local authorities with secure Internet infrastructure is a political failure as far as e-government is concerned. When it comes to interacting with state institutions, there is a lot of truth to Tip O’Neill’s maxim that ‘All politics is local’. It’s local authorities that you turn to for almost everything whether you need housing or a dog licence and none of that can be accessed with an online application.

Search me!

The lack of online payment facilities can be quite perplexing. The Companies Registration Office, for example, won the ‘Best e-Business Implementation (Public Sector) Award’ at ICT Expo 2002, yet the site doesn’t allow subscribers to take out online subscriptions: ‘Cheques and postal orders to be sent by post please’. The same applies to a host of publications, such as those provided by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. When documents aren’t downloadable for free, you have to send a cheque in the post to get your hands on the reading matter.

Non-subscribers to the CRO’s online service can browse the database to a limited extent, but my browser only highlighted the imperfection of the system. I used the CRO search engine to find companies with the word ‘Phoenix’ in their title and was told that the search results could not be displayed because over 200 database entries matching my search criteria had been found (I say ‘over 200’, but I am unable to double-check this because, as I write, the Companies Registration Office Website is down).

During the course of this review in mid-October, another Website that regularly crashed was www.fas.ie. After 24 hours of trying to access the FÁS online job-bank and trying to submit a curriculum vitae, I contacted the state employment agency’s IT department. The Website was rebooted and I was able to gain access, submit an extremely brief curriculum vitae and attempt a search of job vacancies, but 48 hours later the FÁS Website was unobtainable once again. My experience with the online CV generator was disastrous. Under the language skills section, I ticked ‘yes’ for English as my mothertongue. Thinking that was a default, I ignored the four boxes beneath requiring me to rate my reading, speaking, writing and understanding ability to be one of the following ‘none’, ‘elementary’, ‘threshold’, ‘advanced’ or ‘near fluent’. As a result when the first draft of my online CV was produced, I had described my English language reading, speaking, writing and understanding ability as ‘none’.

Searching the FÁS job bank for vacancies was also a frustrating experience. What is it about some Irish e-government Websites that stupidly restrict search results to a maximum of 200 returns. When the FÁS Website was online it listed 789 vacancies available nationally in the ‘Sales, Marketing, PR, Advertising & Property’ sector, by searching on the basis of geographic location, I was able to reduce that down to 304 listed vacancies in that sector in the Greater Dublin region. Unfortunately, the Website would not give me any details as to these job opportunities because the number of vacancies available to view was greater than the 200 allowed. I filtered my search further, by ruling out community employment and social employment schemes, but I couldn’t get a list of job vacancies small enough to be able to view them on screen!

Conundrum

One of the biggest curiosities about e-government in Ireland is: Why does the Information Society Commission Website, www.isc.ie have so little information on it? A journalist colleague remarked on this paradox over two years ago and I’m still of the view that www.isc.ie is a very poor Website for learning about information society policy. In the course of researching this article, civil servants repeatedly referred to a document called New Connections that includes an appendix of over 70 e-government projects in progress and when they are due for full implementation. Typically, the Information Society Commission Website contains no direct link to this document. I eventually found it after several frustrating searches on www.taoiseach.gov.ie—it turned out that the search engine wasn’t able to find anything relating to ‘New Connections’ when I included quotation marks in the search field.

At present, the list of e-government projects in progress listed at the back of New Connections is a guide to what e-government facilities are currently unavailable. Given the growing constraints on public finances, it remains to be seen how many of these e-government initiatives will be realised by the end of 2004.

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