All joined together

28 Nov 2002

When the government first announced details of the Public Services Broker (PSB) last January, it was hailed as the flagship project of the State’s e-government initiatives. Almost a year on, the implementation of the project looks set to be delayed.

The broker is still on the drawing board, as the tendering process designed to select the company that will build it has yet to be completed. Interested parties were invited to submit proposals in January, and a total of 28 companies applied.

From these, just six _ Accenture, HP, KPMG Consulting, Logica, PA and Siemens _ were shortlisted to submit detailed proposals. These six are currently waiting to hear who will make it onto the final shortlist.

“Whoever wins the competition will be our chosen partner to design the software, as well as implement and launch the broker,” says Seamus O’Farrell, senior business manager with Reach, the agency overseeing the development of the broker.

The winner will gain not only a valuable contract, but also invaluable experience in the field of e-government enabling.

“The broker will take six to eight months to implement, so it should be up and running by next summer. It will extend over several years as more and more services are exposed to it,” says Barry Rooney, technical architect for Siemens Business Services, one of the shortlisted companies. “PricewaterhouseCoopers carried out a survey a year or two ago and concluded that there were a total of 492 possible government services that could be e-enabled, but you have to start somewhere.”

While the original plans called for a decision to be made by the end of the year, it now seems likely that this may be overly optimistic. “We’re not far off coming to a conclusion, but we are mindful of the process. We are hopeful that we will have the process complete and a contract awarded more or less by the end of the year,” says O’Farrell.

It is expected, though, that the shortlisted companies will be asked to develop prototypes, and it seems unlikely these will be completed by the original deadline.

The Reach agency has been charged with guiding the current set of e-government initiatives and has already overseen the development of a range of active web portals. Already up and running are the business and public portals, Basis and Oasis, as well as the FÁS Job Bank, eTenders and eLibraries.

Reach’s current remit is the development and implementation of the PSB, a computer system designed to allow each government agency to pool information and resources.

Currently, Irish citizens have to deal with each government agency separately when interacting with the State. When a baby is born, the parents must register the child to receive a birth certificate, register it again for social welfare and register it a third time for tax-free allowance purposes, all with different agencies.

Similar legal requirements exist for marriages and deaths, again all requiring multiple interactions with different agencies. The idea behind the broker is that each citizen should be able to complete all of these tasks in a single interaction with the State either in person, on the phone or through the internet.

For the State, this means less bureaucracy, more cost savings and a decrease in social welfare fraud. For the citizen, the number of forms to be filled out is reduced and dealings with government agencies speeded up.

“Guiding this more than anything else is a governmental desire to improve governmental efficiency, yet most of the journalistic focus has been on the citizen aspect of it. This is understandable, as that is what people will get to see when it is done, but that is not all that is being achieved,” says Paul McSweeney, director of e-government services for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

“The hardest part of the overall job is to realign agencies so that they are working together on multi-departmental processes, and that is the single biggest challenge in e-government. That is probably 80 to 90pc of the challenge, because when you get that right, it is much easier to take services and make them available any way you want,” he says.

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young has worked closely with the Reach agency in providing the specification for what the broker should be and has also managed the procurement process.

“Something like an application for a passport straddles a whole series of agencies in order to fulfil a citizen’s request. Right now the citizen has to go to a whole series of offices, to get their birth certificate and then bring it to the passport office, fill in the paperwork and get in line,” says McSweeney.

Scheduled for launch by summer of 2003, the PSB will initially make available the services of central departments, local authorities and health boards.

“The point of e-government is not to isolate anybody. Signing up to the broker’s services will be characterised by its voluntary nature, at least in the early stages,” says O’Farrell.

“It’s fair to say that Ireland is way ahead in its thinking compared to many other countries. You don’t see evidence of it just yet, because much of the work is taking place behind the scenes. It’s the media’s job to be cynical about things like this, but the truth is that the people who are really thinking about e-government have figured it out,” says Paul McSweeney. “They haven’t figured it out in the UK, France or most other jurisdictions, but they have figured it out here.”

McSweeney offers the example of a world’s first e-government application up and running in Dublin, called eCabinet. Created by US company Invision to e-enable the whole cabinet management process, eCabinet provides a collaborative working model that allows information, such as proposed legislation or the Book of Estimates, to be passed around government departments while automatically filtering content according to the level of security clearance of recipients.

“To my knowledge, this is the first successful application of its kind in the world. The kind of technology used to build it came from the defence and intelligence community in the US,” McSweeney says.