Anyone with a pulse would know that Ireland’s expensive and unwieldy public sector needs reform. But since the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, TD, embarked on his reform plan, much of the debate has been about the Croke Park Agreement, cutbacks and wages.
The second element of the plan that Howlin revealed last year saw the return of a phrase that many of us believed was consigned to the dustbin of technology history: e-government.
E-government was in vogue in this country and throughout the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s but fell out of the lexicon when the nation’s doomed love affair with property and excessive living went into overdrive.
In April last year, Howlin revealed an e-government strategy that will be closely aligned with the Public Service Reform Plan that will see a series of projects delivered by 2015, including the electronic renewal of passports and driving licences, the national roll out of Fixyourstreet.ie by all local authorities and the online delivery of welfare benefit services and land registry services.
E-government during austerity
According to a new report from Accenture, other governments around the world in the grip of austerity are also embarking on e-government strategies. Only instead of calling it ‘e-government’ many are simply calling it digital government.
Irishman Sean Shine is senior managing director of Accenture’s Health & Public Service practice in Europe and Latin America, overseeing digital government roll outs in 28 countries.
Shine says Ireland is typical in many ways of countries trying to ride out austerity and relying on digital or e-government as a core weapon. “Ireland is a microcosm of what’s happening in the rest of Europe where austerity is having an impact. We’ve probably seen it earlier and a lot sharper than most other countries.
“The UK is cutting back dramatically in terms of their spend on services. France has announced it has to find another €5bn this year. Italy is trying to decide how they are going to cut back on the costs of delivering government services.
“All governments are trying to deliver more services more efficiently for less cost. Delivering these services electronically is universally viewed as a key enabler.”
I ask Shine what does he make of Howlin’s plan. “The Croke Park Agreement has got the most attention but if you ask me I think the e-government proposals are a good framework, but executing against that framework is the key.
“There have been some notable success stories in Ireland around e-government already. The Revenue Online Service (ROS) is probably the key one and the Revenue Commissioners is recognised globally as being one of the top 3 tax collection agencies in the world.
“A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year said that the cost of compliance for tax in Ireland was the cheapest in the world and it said the primary reason was the ROS system. I believe north of 90pc of tax revenues in Ireland are now collected through this medium and that is significant.”
Other examples Shine cites include the website for collection of tax on second homes NPPR.ie, which he says is effective for what it does and Motortax.ie because people find it efficient and easy to use.
“You don’t even think of Motortax.ie as e-government, it is that easy to use. It is the epitome of what digital government should look and feel like. It reduces the cost of delivery for both the State and the citizen. That’s a virtuous circle.”
Shine says projects like these only work because they were properly designed and he believes the technology part was the easier part to deliver.
“I can say this because we didn’t work on it ourselves, but Motortax.ie worked particularly well because along the way someone decided that people no longer had to present their insurance certificate every time they wanted to renew their tax, they just had to declare their insurer. Having the confidence to challenge the sacred cows streamlined the entire process. It’s about self-service. It’s like booking an airline ticket. You used to have to wait for your tickets to be posted out to you, now you print off your boarding pass yourself or show up with your passport and a reference number.”
I put it to Shine that not all electronic government projects in Ireland have been successful, and those most resistant to change have pointed to fiascos like PPARS, the payroll system for the health service that has been labelled a €220m failure.
There are a myriad of reasons why PPARS failed, but the ultimate reason most cited is because not all stakeholders in the health system were on board with it.
“These things can be difficult to achieve unless you have the courage of your conviction and the execution skills to deliver. It requires making tough decisions.”
Shine should know. He is currently advising the UK government on a procurement system that will cut the costs of buying goods and services by 10pc.
He says consulting firms like Accenture have also had to take their medicine and today projects are only paid for by governments if the promised benefits actually materialise.
“The requirement to cut the cost of delivery of services to citizens is stark. If you take where the Irish Government is going in terms of Croke Park, ultimately the number of people in the public sector is reducing. That means that actually the service delivery necessity needs to become more efficient because there will be less people to deliver the same or more services.”
I ask Shine, what would be the best starting point for Ireland? “If you look around the world it is no accident that taxation services tend to be the ones that get automated earliest and the most. So usually it is best to aim for high-volume projects that deliver the highest value and impact in terms of transaction efficiency.
“A key area for Ireland should be social welfare delivery. Look at the services being used by large numbers of people if you want to get a tangible return as quickly as possible.
“My starting point has always been tax and social security,” Shine said.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 17 March