Comment: Giving a single face

12 May 2004

One of the issues raising its head more and more in the Government is integration — that is, how and to what extent it is possible to ‘join up’ all the departments, authorities, the agencies and offices to achieve the kind of seamlessness that the promoters of e-government have been espousing over the past three or four years.

After all, ‘e’ is about connectivity and easy access — about removing the need for intermediaries — about new business models using self-service where possible. Clearly, however, in the case of Government departments and agencies joining up is not easy and will take some serious attitude shifting at all levels throughout. But there is a conviction that the only way to realise the potential economies of scale is to achieve far more interoperability and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of cohesion and common purpose amongst public servants.

To look at how information and communications technologies are deployed in Government you have to start by taking a look at how the Government itself has evolved over the past eighty years or so. Without going too much into the history, the result of the evolution over the last century or so is of a series of government departments at the centre — or at the ‘centres’ when Charlie McCreevy has his way — each with its own minister as its political head and a Secretary General as the administrative head.

Beneath the layer — or maybe I should say on top of that layer — we have local authorities, health boards, VECs, regional authorities, county development boards, area partnership companies etc. all presenting their own face to a bewildered public who have to be smart to get what they need by way of support or compliance from ‘Government’.

For instance, I understand that if an elderly person wants to get a chair lift installed in their house, it can take up to two years and a lot of coordination of the agencies (health boards, local authorities etc.) to get the chair. So, for many of them it’s just not worth the effort.

The important thing is that these offices and agencies operate fairly independently of each other and are not really interested in joining up. That is understandable from a human point of view because every time the state sets up a new agency or office, they clear a new field in the jungle and it becomes someone’s property — a place to be defended from marauding pillagers and people with grandiose notions about customers and service. And it’s also hard to blame these people because they compete with each other for resources and don’t get prizes for yielding to others in the same sector in the interests of better service to the citizen.

Indeed, this concept of better service to the citizen is the fundamental shift that has taken place in the public sector over the last decade or so in Ireland. Citizen centricity means that the world (the bureaucratic world, that is) should spin around the citizen, rather than in the old days where the citizen did all the spinning and weaving trying to get help or even to comply with regulations.

Part of the trouble today is that there’s a lot of talk about citizen centric service — and even some MBA speak about ‘customers’ — but it’s all being done on an agency-by-agency basis. The upshot of this could be that the citizen has a smoother spin, and might even encounter people who tell them to ‘have a nice day’ — which, by the way, I’ve always interpreted as more like ‘go away and don’t bother me again’ — but they still have to do the joining up themselves. So where’s the problem?

Well, the problem may lie in the core structures of Government. You see, while the political heads of departments, the Ministers, meet every week to take a political perspective on what the administrative heads present, they go back afterwards to their silos and life goes on more or less as it was. We have political joining up, but it seems to stop there. However, more and more people are beginning to realise that there is a fundamental problem with this old model and that things will have to change.

In the area of ICT, to take just one aspect of the problem, there is no corporate centre in evidence. There is currently no entity to take the strategic view of the Government-wide use of technology. There are no common standards and protocols. Agencies can by and large do what they like. For instance, over the last couple of years, Government departments have been procuring systems to support the Management Information Framework (MIF) whereby all of them adhere to a common financial management regime — yet each has gone to the market on separate procurements to get different people to build or install different systems.

Apart from the cost of the procurement exercise itself, the opportunities for economies of scale and interoperability were lost as departments employed consultants to deliver their unique solutions to the same problem. But nobody seems to have been able to shout stop. To many on the outside this looks bizarre, but there is nobody with sufficient clout at the centre to control this type of situation.

There is no doubt that there are fundamental structural difficulties in ‘joining up’, as they say in the UK. And the difficulties have absolutely nothing to do with technology. They seem to be in the areas of organisational culture, an ethos of public interest that has been lost or obscured somewhere along the way, and a democratic system that encourages the existence of separate silos.

Government is not all about transaction processing; it is more about strategic thinking, policy-making and designing proactive and responsive services to meet the expectations of engaged citizens. We are at the point now where we do need a strong centre – a centre that can take a high level strategic view of the public service, and create the standards and organisational structures to build the ‘joining-up’ foundation on which real integration can be facilitated.

Once again, technology is not the end, but a means to an end that involves changed mindsets, a serious shift in emphasis to the needs and the responsibilities of the citizen and a sense of common purpose amongst the thousands who work in the many layers of bureaucracy that make up ‘Government’ in Ireland. Unless this is tackled and driven from the centre, the road ahead is not going to be smooth or paved with great success.

By Syl O’Connor