Cabinet sets out to conquer paper mountain

22 Jul 2004

A good picture is worth a thousand words, which is why Mary Hanafin TD (pictured) is sitting between a stack of papers and a tablet PC. The TD and Minister with responsibility for the Information Society could hardly have come up with a more compelling image to make the case for eCabinet, the new jewel in Ireland’s e-government crown.

Essentially, it’s a document management system that enables ministers and civil servants to prepare, refine and circulate cabinet paperwork electronically. Phase one was launched last Thursday, which enables the drafting of memoranda that are submitted for consideration to the cabinet secretariat. Within a year its reach will have extended to the inner sanctum of the cabinet meetings themselves, with each minister accessing electronic documents via their tablet PC.

If ever there was a case for a web-based, paperless system then central government is surely it. The cabinet meets every week and is besieged by 30 separate memoranda, hand delivered by various departments. These, in turn, are each copied and re-distributed by hand to 30 different sources such as ministers and senior civil servants across 15 different locations. In a year it generates 1.2 million pages of paper.

Civil servants almost outnumbered the media at last week’s official launch in the government buildings, all evidently keen to be associated with a high-profile €4.5m project that had come in on time and within budget. “It’s the first truly interoperable system across all departments,” said Peter Ryan, assistant secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach. “It’s an initiative that makes the Irish Government a world leader in this area,” claimed Minister Hanafin.

The tender for the system was won by Research Corporation, a US firm headquartered in Florida that has been delivering similar document management systems to the US government and financial institutions since 2000. eCabinet is constructed around a service-orientated architecture that draws on both Microsoft’s .Net and Java platforms. The desktop to the web server is based on .Net using XML authoring tools that preserve different formatting generated by different departments. Backend services are Java based.

Problems with different departmental firewalls and mail programmes had to be overcome to deploy a truly integrated system but vice-president, Michael Boses, was very clear on what had been achieved and why: “It represents a benchmark in terms of public IT projects in relation to value for money and flexibility. There was a high level of involvement from the right people and several prototypes were tried and tested. The development stage took up the majority of the time.”

Arguably, the biggest challenge for a project that is the result of ongoing collaboration between the Department of the Taoiseach and the Centre for Management and Organisations Development (CMOD) will be the change in culture that public servants must embrace to get the most out of the system.

While eCabinet will eventually replace the manual distribution of documents, civil servants at the launch were quick to stress that the new electronic templates strictly adhere to the rules and protocols outlined in the Cabinet Handbook. But there was recognition that the new medium would deliver new benefits. The thinking is that people are less inclined to read lengthy electronic documents on screen so a more concise electronic memorandum might encourage more transparent and efficient government business. “Sometimes it can take time to find out precisely what is sought [in a paper memorandum],” said Ryan. He suggested that the electronic versions made ‘at-a-glance’ assessment much quicker and easier.

Of the 4,000 people that have been registered to eventually use the system, 200 have so far been introduced to the new processes through familiarisation sessions. The intuitive nature of the interface is hoped to take some of the pain out of the learning curve. Windows-style wizard menus help the user create a memorandum in step-by-step stages. Web specialists Fusio and Elucidate were brought in to design a web interface that was as user friendly as possible.

Fujitsu Services was chosen to implement the security components of the system. At present eCabinet is restricted to central government buildings using the government virtual private network, although plans to introduce remote access will eventually pose an even greater challenge to keeping it secure.

Subsequent plans to bring the system into the cabinet room create further challenges but work in this area is well under way. As well as a tablet PC, each minister will be issued with a unique disk key. This has to be inserted to access the tablet, adding another layer of security to the process. Mindful of the e-voting debacle, there also were assurances that there would be a clear audit trail and paper-based alternatives.

With no mandatory deadline for changing everyone over to the new system and the fact that paper processes will continue to play a part — especially when it comes to working from home — the real impact of eCabinet will be difficult to determine. No hard figures on expected cost savings or a return on investment were forthcoming and the suggestion that it might lead to cutting the number of civil servants was met with vague comments about ‘job shifting’.

As a system eCabinet looks well crafted, thorough and capable of delivering real benefits. The next challenge will be managing the culture change that will be required to make it effective.

By Ian Campbell