For one big part of Mary Hanafin’s (pictured) job there is nothing to be learnt from history, simply because there is no history. The rollout of a national broadband infrastructure falls within the wide remit of the Minister of State for the Information Society and it’s arguably her greatest challenge.
“If there’s any area that’s changing fast it’s this one. It’s not as though you can look back to what countries were doing 10 years ago. There is no roadmap,” she says.
The irony is that five years ago Hanafin was teaching history. Now she’s helping to plot a path into an unknown future. Her spectacular rise through the Government ranks has seen her move from Minister of State with special responsibility for children to Chief Whip — with the parallel job of steering the Information Society Commission, which effectively landed her with the much-mooted moniker of e-Minister.
Critics of her appointment, such as ICT Ireland, have called for the job to be a higher-ranking ministerial position, pointing out that Hanafin is a junior minister with no legislative clout. Clearly, this is a well-worn line of argument for the Minister, one that she deals with smoothly.
“It’s almost the story of my short political life because when I was the Minister responsible for children everybody said there should be a full cabinet Minister for children. The very same is true of this role. The argument that I was able to make then — and I think most people would recognise I did a damn good job in children — was that I had to work right across different departments. My job was to co-ordinate all of that, which I did very successfully,” she states confidently. Her point is that co-ordination is the fundamental role of being e-Minister and all the responsibilities that go with the job.
There is, however, one crucial difference between her current responsibilities and her previous role. She is conducting this interview from her office in the Department of the Taoiseach, at the very core of the Government. And it’s not just about having a plusher, bigger office — though this is very much in evidence — it’s about the company you inevitably keep. “Being based in this department I have access to the cabinet sub committee that brings all the other departments together. The whole policy unit is also based in here. There is also the group of secretary generals on hand, and, where legislation is needed, I chair the legislation committee. It’s the Chief Whip’s job. For a co-ordinating role, this is the ideal place to be,” Hanafin continues.
Benefits are tangible on a daily basis. “When you’re speaking to someone and you say you’re from the Department of the Taoiseach, it opens doors,” she says.
While few would challenge her ability to get a job done, the truth is that Hanafin must have questioned her own credentials when the job of e-Minister came up. The way she tells it she’s only a few steps removed from a Luddite and chooses not to surround herself with technology or gadgets. She looks to advisors for nitty-gritty knowledge that goes with the territory.
“I very honestly came out at the beginning and said technology is not my forte. But co-ordination is. I’m not going to be physically out there laying broadband,” she laughs. “My job is to make sure that if, for example, there is a logjam between the Departments of Finance and Marine, that I can move in and break it.”
One particular stalemate has been the slow road to broadband. “Ultimately it’s a commercial activity but we would see it as a partnership. There’s no way it can be totally dependent on the State. That can’t happen,” Hanafin says.
“We are very committed to the whole idea of PPPs [public private partnerships] and that would be the basis for operating, managing and maintaining the networks. Then it can be sold on to the operators and the service providers,” she continues.
“The way we set it out in the plan was a multi-phased approach,” she says. This has started with a tendering process that is under way, and in some places complete, for the construction of metropolitan area networks around 19 Irish towns.
This is the first phase but it’s not entirely clear what will happen next. There is much speculation that the Government’s commitment to broadband infrastructure is likely to suffer as the exchequer struggles to make the sums add up and public expenditure is put on the chopping block.
Hanafin says that nothing has changed: “We see technological infrastructure as intrinsic to our continued economic development and that’s a message that’s coming to us from small businesses as well as the multinationals who have come to this country. How we move forward from that is constantly under review to make sure we get the best value for money. But the aim of affordable, always-on connectivity is something that we are committed to and already have it being implemented in several towns.”
The caveat could be an American called Ira Magaziner. The one-time chief internet policy advisor to the Clinton administration now runs his own consultancy, SJS Advisors, which was brought into provide an overview on Ireland’s broadband strategy. On his visit here he was apparently horrified to discover the lack of fixed-rate internet access, but his verdict on the broadband strategy will only become clear when he comes back to present his findings to a cabinet sub committee.
Rumours abound that he is a hired axe-man, brought on board to deliver the decisive blow that will halt broadband rollout and save the Government a fortune. The plan was to lay down 50,000km of fibre over the next 6-18 months, reaching any town in Ireland with a population of more than 1,500. But will it still happen?
From what Hanafin says, it is possible that fundamental plans outlined in the Government’s New Connections document might be scrapped because an American consultant doesn’t like what he sees. National broadband rollout is hanging in the balance.
“We will certainly review the plans,” says Hanafin. “The 19 towns are going to happen. The next phase is another 64 towns but we’re not going to move forward with something that isn’t working. Ira Magaziner is doing a review of what we’re at and where we are going and, secondly, there will be an internal review of New Connections. Both are due in November.”
At present, the signs are not good. “Even with the current availability of ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) there isn’t as much uptake as there should be,” concedes Hanafin. “It’s chicken and egg. Are people not taking it up because it isn’t cheap enough or because we haven’t increased awareness enough? I think it’s a bit of both.”
On the broader issues of e-government, Hanafin has also been keeping herself busy since she took up the job. Ireland’s success in European benchmarking is well documented, but Hanafin knows there’s still much to do.
By the end of the year the Government also hopes to appoint a consortium to set up the online public broker, the fulcrum of the e-government strategy. There is said to a shortlist of three, consisting of IT consultants and solution companies backed up with heavyweight IT players. Whoever wins, it will be well into next year before the service is in place. Will this slow up the departmental moves to go online? “No. It will be needed to sort out the security elements of getting a passport online, for example, but it won’t stop a lot of the other departments putting their processes in place,” she answers.
Reading Hanafin’s job description would be a time-consuming business. She is the ministerial equivalent of a multi-tasking computer. But anyone expecting the first appointed e-Minister to be a technological visionary will be clearly disappointed.
Hanafin does not pretend to bring a passionate vision or a mapped out road to high-tech enlightenment. She doesn’t see that as her job and, evidently, neither do her senior colleagues who gave her the position.
There’s a lingering doubt if a talented administrator and canny politician is enough for Ireland at a critical time in the country’s economic evolution, where so much depends on our relationship with the fast changing world of information and communications technology.