Comment: What comes after e?

9 Feb 2005

I suppose it’s natural at the beginning of a year to take fresh perspectives: to look back at what’s been done over the past 12 months; to assess what really has or hasn’t been achieved; and then maybe to set new targets and objectives for the coming year.

Looking back over the past year at ‘e’ developments generally, things have moved along quite well both in government and the other sectors – the most noticeable change being that more people are seeing that it’s not all about ‘e’ anymore – that there is a far bigger dimension around organisational change and promoting the benefits of ICT as technology becomes more embedded in everything we do and the potential to do new things opens up.

In Government one of the big winners last year was undoubtedly the Motor Tax Online facility that took away a lot of the pain and hassle that ordinary mortals had to go through to get the paperwork together and post it away in the hope that they’d get it back before the end of the month. Although, you’d think that just another little bit of lateral thinking about the power and functionality of technology would have revealed how very easy it might be to identify motor tax defaulters without the need for road blocks and the like. But, lest I be accused of whinging, I suppose we are at the crawl stage and we have to be very grateful for that. So full marks to those involved. And I suppose until such time as the gardaí get the power to stop motorists purely to give them a breath test, the ‘tax’ checkpoint serves a very useful purpose.

Someone once said to me that there are really only a few government services needed online to make a big impact, because the majority of us only use a few services. While he never got to identifying what he thought they were, I strongly suspect that motor tax was one of them. I imagine that things such as refuse and water charges (which in some places you can pay using your mobile phone) are among the others – and even these can be more easily dealt with by using electronic funds transfer instruments such as direct debits. Although by the sound of things, some of the citizenry have yet to be persuaded that refuse and water charges are here to stay and that the disposal of refuse, in particular, is getting more expensive.

As I’ve said before, most of the visible progress on e-government has been within particular agencies at the point where the agency interacts with those who use their services. However, the concept of ‘joining up’, as the British say, has yet to really manifest itself here, if not in most countries. Most of us are happy with any improvement in service delivery and I suspect that it will be a while before we start to hear calls for further changes to things such as the motor tax collection. And I strongly suspect the more that the popular services are put online, the less interest or fuss will be taken in e-government.

We have to bear in mind too that many people, cynics mainly, see the promotion of e-government as being more in the interests of systems providers than the taxpayer and that the hype of the past couple of years was strangely coincidental with the dot bomb that saw a lot of private sector investments in ICTs drying up. Now, of course, with the renewal of strong growth, the public sector is not that attractive for a lot of them – or at least not worth the considerable pain in bidding for the business.

I remember a few years ago we were all really excited about the internet and what it could mean for people; about the end of one size fits all; and the end of intermediation – or the middleman. In terms of e-government, this meant more self-service and tailoring to meet specific needs. This was seen as a win for both service users – in that they can get what they want when they want it and without the need to stand in line – and for the citizen as taxpayer, because the cost of handling users is reduced (or it should be anyway). That hasn’t changed really, but we still haven’t seen many truly innovative services that cross over bureaucratic boundaries at central government level to make it easier for people to get past the middlemen where they exist.

Maybe that’s an area that will materialise as the Public Services Broker emerges from the laboratories and the talk of interoperability turns into action. Not to mention the pressure to follow the Americans with biometrics and identities which, oddly, don’t seem to cause many problems for those of us who want to skip off to the Big Apple for some shopping.

Amazing, isn’t it, how we can forget all that stuff about privacy when it comes to visiting Uncle Sam for a little plastic therapy!

Looking at what goes on inside the doors of Government, we will see some further activity in the open source arena, with the possibility of open source application software starting to penetrate as the functionality and reliability of office productivity software improves. This is now raising the prospect for many of unburdening themselves of the application software licence fees that are not inconsiderable. There are already quite a number of Linux servers across both government and local government, and the feeling is that the use of open source will get as far as the desktop this year.

The other area of focus has to be in the health area now that we have a Health Services Executive in place, and a new minister who seems determined to make changes – especially at the visible end of the health system. Last year we saw the publication of a health information strategy and the procurement of a Health Services Portal – currently under development. It will be interesting to see how things shape up this year – and whether the new executive can use technology to innovate and make an impact.

By Syl O’Connor