A matter of life and death

29 Jan 2004

One of Ben Franklin’s most quoted sayings claims that in this world “nothing can be said to be certain other than death and taxes”. And if it is certain that government will collect taxes it is equally certain that it will record deaths, along with other things such as births and marriages.

The civil registration process is perhaps one of the most important aspects of government. For instance, we rely on birth certificates for many things from asserting our identity to proving our claim to certain benefits. The Civil Registration Service (CRS) last year processed 140,000 life events (births, stillbirths, marriages, adoptions, death), issued 400,000 certificates and conducted 1.2 million searches.

In common with many other government processes, however, the registration of milestone events is ripe for reform. While many government activities have, over the decades, embraced the benefits of information and communications technology, until recently, civil registration had yet to do so. It should be pointed out that this was not for any lack of willingness of the people involved but because the law underpinning it dated back to the 1850s and mandated that the information be recorded by hand.

That has now changed and the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of Health and Children, with assistance from Accenture, have almost completed a €9.3m programme of modernisation of the CRS. The new service is being piloted in Cork and will be rolled out across the nation shortly.

“This project is almost a perfect case study of e-government,” says Seamus Mulconry (pictured), government manager at Accenture. “If I want to teach students what e-government is all about I would use this. If you want to modernise the CRS you don’t just need technology. You need to redesign the process and you also need to look at the underlying legislation. It also changes the way in which people work. So this isn’t just about technology.”

According to Mulconry, there are four separate project strands: legislation, organisation, technology and historical data capture. For the latter, every record dating back to 1846 was digitised. “That was a huge undertaking,” says Mulconry. “There are now some 30 million records in a searchable database and all new entries will be added to it.”

From a technology point of view, the new system uses a browser-based thin client approach based on the Accenade Connected Architecture, a structured set of implementation classes and runtime services developed by Avanade (a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft) running on advanced Microsoft technology including Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Software, Internet Information Server 5.0, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000 and Microsoft Message Queue. The system also uses Baltimore Technology’s public key infrastructure for authentication and an electronic pen device called e-Pad for capturing signatures digitally.

While the system will not be accessible to the public over the internet, it will make the job of getting a relevant certificate much easier. “At the moment,” explains Mulconry, “you can only obtain a certificate for your own locality from the local registrar. If you want a certificate from anywhere else in the country, you must apply to the General Register Office in Dublin either in person or in writing. With the new system, however, you will be able to go into any registrar’s office to request a certificate from anywhere in the country.”

The advantage of the system will come from the fact that it will, in certain cases, eliminate the need for a citizen to request a certificate in the first place. For instance, at the moment, new births in Cork are recorded using the new system.

“A qualified informant, usually the mother, gives the information to the registrar, who then enters it into the database using a PC. The mother is then shown the data on the screen to ensure it is correct and digitally signs the entry [using the e-Pad]. This information is immediately stored in the central database but is also sent to the Department of Social Welfare and Family Affairs,” he explains.

According to Mulconry, if this is the mother’s first child she will automatically receive an application for Children’s Benefit or in the case of subsequent children, the application will be triggered automatically on the assumption that if you are claiming for one child you will want to claim for them all. “There have been stories of mothers in Cork going home after the birth of a second or later child to find that the increased benefit is already waiting for them,” says Mulconry.

This new system should eliminate the need for 30,000 birth certificate requests annually and will reduce search times from an average of 30 minutes to 30 seconds.

“People think that e-government is simply about putting government services on the internet. It’s not. It’s about changing the processes so that the citizen doesn’t have as much to do. This is one of the best examples of that change,” says Mulconry.

He is not alone in his belief. The judges of the Wall Street Journal European Innovation Awards 2003 chose it from more than 130 projects in 37 countries as joint winner in the IT Services sub-category and named it bronze winner in the overall Business Innovation category. “As far as I am aware, it was the only public sector award that went out last year,” says Mulconry.

By David Stewart