At least it’s not Brussels…

31 Jul 2003

Jointly organised by the Italian Presidency and the European Commission, this year’s European E-government Conference was held in the picturesque village of Cernobbio on Lake Como, Italy, on 7-8 July. It was attended by 31 ministers from EU countries as well as from future member states and other countries. Ireland was represented by Mary Hanafin TD, Minister for the Information Society.

Significantly, this was the first ‘event’ of the Italian presidency and, according to the Italians, a demonstration of the seriousness with which they view e-government. At the Ministerial Conference the ministers expressed their determination to further accelerate exchanges of practical experiences and proposed concrete measures to be taken towards widespread deployment of e-government. Exchanging practical experience is not a bad idea, since everybody seems to be falling over themselves reinventing wheels at great expense, I suspect, to taxpayers all over Europe.

The main themes discussed included the impact of e-government on European competitiveness, building a more productive and transparent public sector, and how the ‘citizen-centric’ approach also impacts on the efficiency of administrations themselves. The other significant aspect of the conference was the awarding of prizes for best practice in a number of areas. I always wonder about this notion of ‘best’ practice because everybody is absolutely positive that theirs is just that and, if somebody wins out over all others, does that mean that the others should throw out what they’ve got in favour of the newly recognised ‘best’? I have a feeling that it might be more realistic and, perhaps kinder, if the term ‘good practice’ were used instead. Anyway, this part of the conference was exciting and Ireland did quite well.

Another point of interest was the arrival and participation of the Italian Prime Minister just days after his little ‘misunderstanding’ with the German MEP over the MEP’s missed vocation. I mention the arrival because of the enormous number of camera men, reporters, officials and, of course, the surly types who wear the secret-service-issue ear pieces with curly plastic tubes connecting the right ear to the shirt collar and who look at you threateningly as a potential assassin. It was a grand entrance as the phalanx made its way along the exhibition area where a lot of eager potential prize winners availed of the temporary distraction to cool their nerves.

Alas, Silvio Berlusconi didn’t give us a reprise of his previous week’s observations on the career choice of that German MEP and, at that stage, probably wasn’t himself aware of the impression his Minister for Tourism was to make on the rest of the German nation. However, he spoke for an hour on several issues of great relevance to his Italian audience while the rest of us watched his words being instantaneously displayed on the screen beside him and listened to a seemingly tired or overheated interpreter giving us a rather colourless version of his words in English.

The whole thing was made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the auditorium — a snazzy circular chamber constructed for the occasion inside one of those conference hangars in the grounds of the impressive Villa Erba only a short speedboat ride across a scenic lake from the city of Como itself — was without an iota of air conditioning, while the outside temperature was in the region of 33 degrees. But, as one hardened campaigner remarked, “At least it isn’t Brussels, the drabbest city in the world, so I suppose we can’t complain!”

An interesting aspect of the conference was the presentation of the report ‘E-government in Europe: The State of Affairs’, by Dr Christine Leitner of the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht. The report looks at strategies for good governance and identifies two approaches likely to lead e-government strategies astray — focusing too much and too soon on the technological aspects, and concentrating solely on service delivery.

The report concludes that there are five critical factors affecting e-government implementation: adequate use of tailor-made technology resulting from co-operative processes involving vendors and users; sufficient funding, possibly requiring public private partnerships; strategic frameworks based on cost/benefit analyses and demand; a well-suited legal and regulatory framework; and adequate change management schemes anticipating psychological resistance and factual obstacles.

For most of the attendees, however, the main attraction was the awards for e-government. An independent jury selected about 65 ‘best’ practice examples out of nearly 360 proposals. There were three categories: the role of e-government in European Competitiveness; a better life for European citizens; and European, Central and Local Government E-Cooperation.

The winner in the first category was Bremen Online Services, which enables online transactions and payments in a secure and legally binding way with intermediaries (tax consultants and so on) being the prime users. Ireland’s entry in this category was the Revenue On-Line Service.

The award in the second category went to Austria for its ‘Help’ initiative, which is a virtual guide to Austrian authorities and institutions, targeting about 150 life events. Ireland’s entry in this category was ‘E-enabling Life Event Data’ from the General Register Office (GRO) submitted by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. While it didn’t win, it was short listed to the last five in the category, which is quite an achievement and a recognition of the work being done in this crucial area to enable the development of e-government in Ireland.

The third award, in the category for European, Central and Local Government E-Cooperation, went to Spain for its project to streamline the collection of tax information to eliminate the need for citizens to present tax certificates for different administrative processes. In this category, Ireland’s Reach agency proposed a messaging infrastructure for intra-governmental co-operation being developed in conjunction with the GRO project mentioned earlier. Reach received an honourable mention for this interesting and pivotal project.

The main theme emerging from the conference was that e-government has now moved beyond service delivery and is focusing more and more on what the citizen doesn’t see — the way bureaucracies work and use taxpayers’ money. There is a growing recognition that making the transformation to a citizen-centred government has a lot more to do with culture and attitudes than it has to do with technology.

There is also an increasing interest in sharing good practice among all governments as they come to terms with the shift in emphasis towards the citizen. Interestingly, about half of the total number of proposals submitted for awards were under the category ‘a better life for European citizens’ and, according to the report presented by Leitner, showed ‘a pattern of replacing rigid administration with reactive, responsive and flexible structures relying on e-government’, which show the ‘magnitude of creativity and innovation’ across Europe.

By Syl O’Connor

Pictured: Silvio Berlusconi suffered in translation but at least he didn’t mention the Germans