Biting the bullet of bureaucracy

8 Aug 2003

It’s interesting to see the pace of development of e-government, not just here in Ireland, but also across the world. Time was when it was ‘the business’ to have a colourful website with nice photos of the important people and loads of stuff ‘about us’. And it wasn’t confined to the public sector either. But the private sector tends to move at a quicker pace, no doubt spurred on by the jaws of insolvency snapping at their heels.

Over the last few years the big commercial operations have built internal infrastructures to link all the component parts of their organisations, and sometimes even their customers and suppliers, to achieve greater efficiencies and higher productivity in the form of reduced costs and higher profits. For instance, some of the banks have started to take a more holistic view of their customers to provide a more relevant service and, of course, to do better business.

This has meant that organisational barriers don’t or can’t matter that much anymore — the overriding consideration has to be the needs of the customer. And it is the customer, after all, who picks up the tab. But getting it done isn’t easy. It requires firm direction and leadership and a very robust sense of ‘corporateness’, encouraged, driven and facilitated by a cadre of committed business managers, with strong influence over the components.

But the public sector is different, as anybody who works in it will readily point out. You see, it’s not exactly a corporate entity and doesn’t have a clear head office crew to wield the big stick. It has evolved over a century or so as a collection of independent bureaucracies, each with its own leader and accountability arrangements and usually supported in its existence by law. The trouble is that the modernisation process, started by Albert Reynolds back in 1994, has been trying to get public servants to focus on the customer rather than the organisation. But each organisation still tends to see the citizen that it deals with as its customer and not as a customer of the public service as a whole.

In more recent years the arrival of e-government has really made this kind of ‘joined up view’, as they call it in the UK, look possible and we are seeing great moves being made on new, online delivery mechanisms such as the Public Services Broker — the procurement process for this is under way again after months of delay.

However, people are also beginning to realise that technology can be used to really transform things, such as bringing common back-office functions together, building re-useable systems rather than re-inventing wheels, and using web services — the newest frontier in corporate governance. Not only that, but they can also build new delivery systems, new models of integration and decentralisation, and self-service facilities that cut out layers of bureaucracy. If they could do this it would have a significant impact on the (ever-increasing) cost of governance and it would really make big differences in terms of national competitiveness.

A problem, though, lies in the legacy structures. It’s one thing to talk to each other about ‘cross-cutting issues’ as they call them. It’s another to actually create a corporate culture. The fact is that the incentives to stay in the silos far outweigh the ‘rewards’ claimed or associated with integration. For instance, all Dáil questions are designed to put the political heads of the silos (ministers) on the spot about their services and their policies. And when it comes to the annual divvy-up of the national cake at estimates time, I’m afraid it’s everyone for himself — there are no prizes for winning money for someone else!

A further important consideration is that the thought of centralising anything gives some public service leaders the horrors, mainly because of their experience of the big bogey of central control — the Department of Finance — seen by many as impeding innovation and progress, and lacking in the ability to analyse policy impacts. To be fair to the Department of Finance, policy impacts are sometimes hard to find or to measure. They have a big job to do in keeping a tight rein on the public purse, and for that, they have to be ruthless.

So, what do you do? All the wisdom points to greater integration supported by a central or ‘corporate HQ’ which gives the kind of drive and leadership that such a profound transformation demands. It’s too easy to dismiss it because of experience — and it’s a different kind of centralisation that’s required anyway. It has to be based on a culture of support for innovation and risk taking (another horrible prospect for the public service).

If there is a case for centralising some things — such as IT governance, shared services and so on — it should be looked at dispassionately before being dismissed for the wrong reasons. And it doesn’t really have to be centralised at the Department of Finance — in fact it might be better for everyone at this stage if it weren’t. What you really need to do is to see if there is another model of ‘centrality’ that would be acceptable to all those leaders and visionaries — the people who ‘didn’t get where they are today by lying down under the Department of Finance’!

So, it’s lateral thinking time again — time to take a new view of the world of connectivity and powerful computing — time to innovate and try out new ways of lowering the cost of government — time to focus on the ‘bureaucratic bullet’ that needs biting so that the painful process can commence. Ah, but is there a bullet-biter amongst them?

We’ll just have to wait and see.

By Syl O’Connor