Comment 2005: Pragmatism prevails

10 Jan 2005

A year ago there was a lot of speculation about who was getting the contract to build the Public Services Broker, a single point of online contact with government, which Reach has been grappling with for a couple of years. While we now know that it was awarded to BearingPoint at the beginning of this year, at the time of writing the said broker is not much in evidence and, from what we can gather, when it does emerge it will be in light format with few services on board.

But the discerning among us will realise that we have all survived yet another year without the all-singing and all-dancing central point of online access to all public services that, just a few years ago, was being hailed as the big driver for e-government.

However, despair not, because even in the absence of that seemingly essential piece of central architecture, progress has been made on a number of fronts, the most notable being on a national level with the facility to pay your motor tax online. And that’s not all, because in some areas of the country you can pay your local charges using your mobile phone or, in the case of fish farmers, you can get your laboratory results by SMS.

Some joining up was also achieved in connecting the General Register Office and the Department of Social Welfare so child benefits for second and subsequent children are now paid automatically. I don’t know if it would be possible to estimate the benefit to the economy of all of these developments in terms of empty queues or happy campers, but for a growing number of people these are big wins and very good reasons for using technology.

During the year we also saw the emergence of portals for sectors and groups who want to create or have online access to the things that concern them in their lives. Before she moved on to bigger things, Mary Hanafin TD, the then Minister for the Information Society, launched the Mobhaile project, now being piloted in seven local authority areas by the Local Government Computer Services Board. Mobhaile allows communities and community groups to create their own portals — their own space on the internet — based around their activities and needs.

The interesting thing is that portals have started to shift the focus of internet developments more towards those who see the internet as a place to define their own world rather than a space for other people to throw stuff at them. The impact of this change in emphasis will see public services being contextualised into portals where people get at the services relevant to them at the portal where they hang out with people of similar interests or disposition. Could this be the beginnings of virtual decentralisation by any chance?

And speaking of decentralisation, the impact of that decision a year ago has yet to emerge in terms of the technology deployment strategies. Quite apart from the organisational and operational headaches that face our public administrators, this act of fragmentation — which is really what the Irish form of decentralisation is — has presented the IT communities in government departments and semi-state bodies with considerable headaches, not least of which is the implications for an already serious shortage of skills and expertise. This situation sees frequent use of the large consultancy houses, many of whom are using public service contracts as training grounds for their rookies. The trend in the decentralisation process next year will see some developments of IT centres outside (but perhaps not too far) from Dublin and within in easy reach of each other — ‘stylisation’ perhaps?

Another development that has come into sharper focus both here and abroad is the growing momentum towards open source software in governments. Already the German Government has made a serious commitment to open source with a lot of success. There are also interesting projects going on in France and Spain at regional level where open source software is being used successfully, while the Austrians have decided to stay away from it. While it is not that common in the Government here, concerns around continuity and trust along with the recognition by the open source community that it has to get its act together in terms of standards, international-isation and commoditisation will see these issues being addressed by international open-source groups who are emerging out of what, to some of us, appears to be chaos.

For instance, the Cospa project, designed to promote open source software in public administration — and supported by the EU Commission — addresses a big need in terms of information and comparative analysis that should prove invaluable to public authorities grappling with the questions and concerns around migration to open source. Taken together these developments will see some movement here towards open source software over the next year in public administration.
One thing, however, that may militate against open source in applications development may be that most of those in that business are the smaller and more creative software houses that don’t really get a slice of the government action.

Smallness gives rise to concerns that mainly centre on long-term continuity and fragmentation of supply. While the big consultancies can deliver complete packages, including the 80pc non-IT aspects that can be the cause of so much failure, the smaller houses, being very focused on their core business of software development, are not that well equipped to give the big solution. I think though, that this message is getting through and you may see some new business models emerging that will address these issues — or to coin Paul Everitt, the creator of Zope, we may see the emergence of open source total solutions.

It is also probable that the Revenue Commissioners will continue with the process of making their services accessible online. The Revenue Commisioners, of course, have been one of the big success stories in e-government, so it would be surprising if its momentum was to wane. The next big breakthrough will be the PAYE sector and we may see something emerging towards the end of the year on that.

Tom Kitt TD opened the e-government summit in Dublin last month and spoke of his wish to see more use of technology in the democratic process with online consultation facilities for members of the public who want to get involved in what goes on in Dáil Éireann. So it will be interesting to see what emerges in this space over the next 12 months. All in all, 2005 looks likely to be an interesting year as e-government settles down as pragmatism prevails. We’ll see.

By Syl O’Connor