Backroom evolution

26 Oct 2006

The first wave of hype around the first public sector web sites has long since subsided and the impact of PPARS is still being felt, so it’s no surprise that talk about e-government is more measured than it used to be.

“Some of the bigger projects haven’t materialised in quite the way they should have. Reach hasn’t achieved its goal during its stated period of development and we haven’t seen great progress with the HSE [Health Service Executive] with regards to IT,” said Curt Adler, head of public sector at HP. “They haven’t exploited the potential that is there within technology to improve our healthcare services.”

It’s not all bad news, however, and Adler highlights the advances made behind the scenes. “There has been a significant amount of back-office work that has needed to be done. It’s not sexy and won’t make newspaper headlines but it makes it possible for the government to deliver the services it does across the different channels.”

He also applauds the way the public sector has risen to the challenge of getting its house in order in terms of managing sensitive data. “There has been significant investment in data protection, reducing the risks of data being lost, stolen or misappropriated,” he said. “These initiatives aren’t hitting the headlines either, perhaps because the government doesn’t want to dwell on the fact there was some risk in the system before.”

He welcomes the forward-looking vision from some government departments who have taken difficult and expensive decisions and introduced best practise solutions to ensure that public data is kept safe. “In very cost-effective ways departments are replicating data that makes their operations disaster tolerant. They are being very innovative and we are seeing co-operation between government departments that we have never seen before.”

It’s impossible to talk about e-government without mentioning PPARS. High-profile failures around a national payroll system for the health service have left a mark, according to Adler. “It’s certainly got harder for government departments to do business and they would all admit that. It has been a difficult year, and because of PPARS fewer large projects have been initiated. Not only have we seen a slowdown but the restrictions under which government departments are now operating actively discourages them from entering into the process in the first place.”

Government officials are much more process bound with the introduction of more checks and balances around procurement. “Decisions that used to be within the remit of lower-level officials are being reviewed to no particular benefit,” says Adler, who is concerned that key technology requirements are not always being fulfilled.

HP engages with government on a number of levels, ranging for the basic supply of hardware to more sophisticated service contracts. Across the board he believes that the sector could benefit from a more centralised approach to procurement.

“A very obvious example is email,” he says. “For every government department, hospital, university and agency there seems to be a different email system. It is a technology that people use all the time, that doesn’t need to have separate infrastructure and procurement processes.”

The problem is only compounded when it comes to bigger projects. “The public sector is very distributed and it’s not led from the top. There are advisory bodies that remain advisory. There is an argument for a more centralised approach,” he argues.

That said, he remains hugely optimistic about the Irish government’s progress.
“I interact with senior people in IT in government and know that plans for the coming years are quite amazing. There is some visionary work and exciting projects coming along that give good value for citizens and move the needle up for Ireland in e-business as well.

“The innovative work of the Department of Agriculture has provided a fantastic service to farmers and citizens,” he says by way of example. “The whole constituency is benefiting from its work.”

One of the areas where HP has enjoyed success is around the growing acceptance of selective outsourcing and managed services as way of alleviating ICT complexity. Data Electronics is an indigenous company that provides the full range of hosting and managed service offering and has also benefited from its adoption among the public sector.

“There is a real willingness to look at outsourcing and managed hosting solutions,” says CEO Maurice Mortell. “Their policy over the next three to four years is to outsource a lot of the standard IT functions that are carried out in Government and semi-state organisations.”

According to Mortell, departments and agencies are creaking under the weight of data and are looking to service providers to offer some relief. Two years ago there was much talk about Government going to tender for a world-class data centre to host and manage multiple departments but it never happened. “What occurred instead was that the different departments went off and did their own thing,” says Mortell.

Like Adler, he identifies a lack of centralised management around the basic ICT function, which isn’t always a bad thing for vendors. “There isn’t a centralised view of what’s going on. It tends to be disparate bunch of projects. As a supplier you can engage differently with each one because each entity has different ideas about what they’re trying to achieve.”

Data Electronics has some public sector business and anticipates more but like a lot of suppliers Mortell finds the procurement process slow and not always favourable to smaller companies. “Tendering can be very time consuming and they sometimes seem more inclined to stick with an incumbent.”

Like any customer engagement, Mortell says it’s about being given the opportunity and building relationships. “You have to start off somewhere and you do a good job. Word of mouth and referrals are very important after that.”

Comparing it with the private sector he said that adoption of technology by the Government was a little further down the agenda. “You get some agencies and departments that are very savvy about it but generally I’d say the private sector is more technology focused. It isn’t always high on the public sector agenda.”

By Ian Campbell