E-government project criticised by watchdog

8 Jan 2008

Ireland’s e-government project has drawn heavy criticism in a major report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, the office which oversees public spending.

According to the report, a substantial number of planned projects were never started or else abandoned, among them online applications for housing grants, passports, haulage licences and driving licences. Of the 143 projects planned for the e-government initiative, 86 are fully live; 45 are in progress and 24 never got off the ground.

The report says it was “unrealistic” for the Government to have had all public services available for online delivery by the end of 2005, as per their original target. “While the provision of information on the internet was largely achieved, there was mixed progress in delivering e-government projects with a transactional content,” the C&AG reports.

Cost overruns are also cited: the Public Services Broker, intended to be the central point of access for citizen information, was originally budgeted at €14m. By the end of 2006 that had risen to almost €37m with ongoing running costs estimated at close to €15m per year.

Administration of e-government projects also come in for criticism, with the C&AG saying the management process needs to be improved. “All projects should have clear, measurable business objectives, and time and cost targets. A much stronger project cost and performance measurement and reporting system is required, integrated with departmental and agency reporting systems.”

Some online services have been successful – a fact the C&AG acknowledge, citing the Revenue Online Service and Motor Tax Online, among others. Schemes like these also have “quantified and substantial” benefits, but the report found in most cases that the claimed benefits for services were “relatively non-specific”.

Certain departments appear to lack the vision needed to see how technology could transform the agencies or improve service delivery to the public. “There is no evidence there were any particular initiatives taken to encourage departments or agencies that gave insufficient priority to e-government or to support those that were having difficulties in implementing e-government plans,” the report says.

Whereas the early years of the e-government project had a momentum, this “appears to have faded somewhat”, with the lack of a formal strategy since 2006 seen as symptomatic of this. The report mentions however that the Department of the Taoiseach is currently formulating a new strategy.

The report gives several recommendations for improving the e-government plan, saying it would benefit from better targeting, greater rigour and active central oversight and support. It also says the focus should change from being technology-led to having greater emphasis on changing major processes, especially where more than one agency is involved. The C&AG also calls on the Government to publish annual reports that would highlight the progress achieved against set goals and the impact of planned projects.

By Gordon Smith