Asking what people want is the way to bridge the digital divide

2 Oct 2008

For e-government to succeed in Ireland, it must begin with social inclusion.

All eyes will be on the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD this week as he formulates an early Budget geared at keeping the economic wolves from Ireland’s door. Top of his list, no doubt, is chronic spending and inefficiencies in the public sector, particularly in health, but also in technology.

The introduction of e-government initiatives and IT deployments aimed at improving citizen services such as Revenue Online and Motor Tax Online have been lauded, but outstanding failures such as the ¤150m PPARS (Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems) debacle have left many citizens asking exactly who these investments were meant to serve.

Technology marches on and so too must government efficiency, but a from-the-ground-up analysis of projects and how they are judged, deployed and paid for is greatly needed.

A ground-breaking study by the Mid-West Regional Authority (MWRA), in conjunction with similar groups in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, has found that future digital services from Government need to focus more on social inclusion and finding out how citizens – particularly in marginalised communities – want to access these services.

What is the point in deploying a multimillion euro internet project if the people who need the services most don’t even have the means to access them?

For many, it’s hard to believe how recent the boom times seemed, but for whole communities of Irish citizens in rural and regional areas, the Celtic Tiger years have meant little.

Liam Conneally, director of the MWRA, says that a survey of the Clare, Limerick and Tipperary regions found that a whole generation – not just the elderly or socially disadvantaged – are unaware of the services available from Government over the internet, and indeed are unaware of technology such as the internet and email in general.

In a comparison, some 64pc of people in disadvantaged areas were not using internet or email, compared with 30pc of people in affluent areas.

This situation has not been helped by the fact that some 40pc of Irish households don’t have a computer and only 30pc of households have broadband.

“What has been overlooked is that citizens want participation at the content stage of the creation of state websites. They don’t want to be told what’s available, but want to be advising the public services of what they want. No one is asking them.

“What is required is a bottom-up approach to the range of public services people want available to them via the internet,” Conneally says.

The MWRA – which consists of 27 elected councillors from Clare, Limerick and Tipperary – worked on a Translational Project aimed at making e-

government more accessible and socially inclusive. It worked with the Eindhoven region of the Netherlands, West Flanders in Belgium and Cambridgeshire in the UK.

Among the pilot projects being rolled out across the mid- west is an online dictionary of available cultural and recreational services, the promotion of assistive technologies in libraries and the provision of public internet kiosks.

“We found that it’s not so much an economic issue as it is a question of awareness and access. We’ve identified that every town and village in the region should have internet access points in public places. We also encouraged older people to come in and tell their stories, and then put these

stories online with the help of community champions who emailed these to their entire family and network of friends.”

Conneally explains that identifying champions – individuals with knowledge of IT and time to spend working with the community – is central to the education and awareness of ICT.

But what’s fundamental going forward, he says, is that if Government and public bodies are introducing new services via technology to streamline costs, it would be well worth their while actually talking to people on the ground. They should ask people what they want, rather than just proscribing technology for technology’s sake.

“This is pivotal across the whole gamut of public services, from the Health Service Executive (HSE) to accessing social welfare services and accessing education.

“How and where disadvantaged groups see education on their list of priorities, for example. It’s important that public sector bodies ask questions and run pilots so someone can say ‘Hey, this works for me!’.

“And it’s not just about disadvantaged groups in regional cities. There are large cohorts of elderly people who could be doing their shopping online. And also individuals with impaired mobility or who are visually impaired, we have to have services available online. It’s invaluable.

“From our studies, however, we’ve found that PCs have little relevance to marginal groups – so we need to focus on how we can make technology more relevant to these groups. While everyone is arguing about making broadband universal, no one is arguing about training marginal groups in ICT.”

Conneally concludes that the next generation of public services to be made available via the internet should be done by talking first to those in our communities who risk exclusion for social or economic reasons.

“Technology, training and skills can make all the difference to these people. Fear barriers around technology need to be broken down, and new services should always have inclusion in mind.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Liam Conneally, director of the Mid-West Regional Authority


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years