How to turn Ireland on to technology

28 Nov 2003

As we hurtle inexorably towards Budget 2004, one of Ireland’s best-known academics is perplexed. The last time there was a budget surplus Dr Danny O’Hare (pictured), current chairman of the Information Society Commission (ISC), vehemently made it clear that every home in Ireland should have broadband connectivity and the scheme should be approached with the same seriousness and energy as the rural electrification of Ireland in the last century.

It is two years since the last budget surplus, the broadband deficit is still as apparent and the economic health of Ireland is much changed, but O’Hare’s view hasn’t. “There are big decisions to be made on a whole range of infrastructural issues, broadband is only one of them, and the same nerve exuded by TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass in shaping Ireland’s economic future needs to be seen again.”

As chairman of the ISC, Louth native O’Hare’s job is to advise the Taoiseach and the Government about the correct policies to adopt in relation to Ireland’s development as a technology and knowledge-centric nation.

He is also one of the country’s most prominent academics, in the past heading up both Letterkenny and Waterford Regional Technical Colleges (now institutes of technology), before taking up the reigns as founding president of Dublin City University and running it between 1977 and 1999. Conferred with numerous degrees, ranging from University College Galway to the University of St Andrews in Scotland among others, O’Hare also holds prominent positions on a number of Government advisory bodies.

He has just stepped down from chairmanship of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs and continues to chair the Food Safety Authority, the Government Task Force on Physical Sciences and also serves on the board of Media Lab Europe and Calor. He is also chairman of the Independent Hospitals Association of Ireland. Not bad for a man who was supposed to have retired four years ago.

The ISC was established in the late Nineties by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to advise his department on national technology policies. After only two the ISC suddenly ceased to exist and only two years ago it was brought back into existence under the present chairmanship of O’Hare. The level of influence that the ISC actually has is difficult to gauge and critics say that many of the past recommendations of the commission only get lip service from the Government.

Under O’Hare’s tenure it is clear that the ISC is anxious to ensure that many of its recommendations become policy and to a certain extent the ISC has reduced its recommendations from a wish list of 50 two years ago to concentrating on a few core areas – e-government, e-procurement by government, e-health, cyber security and privacy, the schoolroom of the future and the workplace of the future. To this extent a number of key recommendations have been made. Among these is a recommendation that if the Government adopts public private partnership as a means of implementing the national e-procurement strategy it could save up to €1bn annually on public procurement. In recent weeks, the ISC unveiled its review of e-government progress so far and came to the conclusion that original aim of having every government department delivering services electronically would not be met by 2005 and more realistic goals must be put in place, ones that build on the success of such services that apply to citizens and businesses such as the Revenue On-Line Service.

As an academic, O’Hare is keenly aware of the importance of research and development (R&D) to Ireland’s industrial future and was amongst those in the scientific community that lobbied hard for the Government to remove the freeze it had placed on the Cycle 3 Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI). While not guaranteeing the Government would deliver the full €140m specified under the programme, the Minister for Education and Science Noel Dempsey TD, said the amount would be “substantial” and would continue up to 2008, two years longer than the 2006 end date outlined in the National Development Plan.

Among those trying to promote Ireland’s potential as an international R&D to hub and encourage researchers to locate in Ireland, O’Hare was alarmed when the freeze was put in place last year, fearing for the damage it would do to Ireland’s reputation in the international science community. Naturally, relieved at its restoration, O’Hare says: “It was a glitch in Government policy and the Government should be applauded for seeing the sense in reversing its decision.

“When the freeze happened it sent out all the wrong signals and Ireland’s commitment to R&D was seen as contradictory. On the one hand, we had Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) endeavouring to get the global community to see how serious Ireland was about R&D and yet on the other hand a general research programme for the universities was halted. It looked contradictory and created uncertainty. One of the things that drove the Irish economy was the consistency of Government policy in developing the higher education sector alongside such things as corporate tax and that gave foreign investors great confidence. There was consistency down through the years and that gave investors great confidence in what they perceived to be a stable environment. Freezing the PRTLI undermined that reputation. It would have been unrealistic for SFI and third-level institutions to be expecting researchers and scientists that would be useful to the country to be making career commitments under such circumstances.

“I am glad the Government has learned and accepted the argument that consistency of policy is vital despite the economic climate. We all want the best for this country,” O’Hare states emphatically.

O’Hare’s experience as an academic running two regional colleges as well as a prominent university has also convinced him of the importance of giving the institutes of technology greater autonomy in order to increase the diversity of education available in Ireland. “While the institutes have been promised to be put under the auspices of the Higher Education Authority, it is really only a funding change and won’t give them the additional freedoms to mange themselves autonomously. What is really needed is legislative change. The institutes need to have the same managerial freedoms that the universities in Ireland currently enjoy.”

O’Hare also believes that the institutes of technology could also play a vibrant role in boosting the R&D capacity of the country’s academic institutions as well as helping the research activities of Irish indigenous firms. One such proposal he is working on is building privately run research centres adjacent to each Institute of Technology that would be part-funded by the private sector as well as Forfás and Enterprise Ireland. “The idea is that they would create an avenue for the college’s staff to partake in applied research and contribute to the creation of companies and products without losing out financially due to lost hours in teaching time, which is a major prohibitor for academic staff at present. The research role that the institutes could play in Ireland’s R&D future has often been talked about, but has not been followed through.”

However, what really raises O’Hare’s hackles at present is the countdown to Budget 2004 and the seeming reluctance in Government to borrow to fund infrastructure. “The awful experiences of the 1980s embedded in people’s minds that borrowing is bad. But the difference, and most people know this, is that borrowing for productive purposes makes sense. By international standards Ireland is under-borrowing. As a percentage of GDP [gross domestic product], borrowing by the State by international standards is modest. The ESRI [European Social Research Institute] has recommended that the Government must borrow to pay for much-needed infrastructure. Failure to borrow in my view is both dangerous and bad for the country. I would say to the Government, ‘this is one of those big decisions you will have to take and hold your nerve’.”

O’Hare continues: “I’ve heard the Tánaiste talk about the big decisions made by the State in the past, such as the ambitious rural electrification of Ireland, Whitaker’s economic policies, the decisions of Lemass and the creation of the IFSC [Irish Financial Services Centre] (many people had predicted it would fail). There are times when governments have had to shrug their shoulders and make big, difficult decisions. Borrowing for infrastructure purposes is just one of these decisions.”

This discussion leads inevitably to the fact that Ireland has dropped from being one of the primary advocates of broadband and a digital society in the late Nineties to being far down the list in terms of connectivity by today’s standards. “I believe we should have broadband in every home in Ireland. Businesses won’t do it, that’s why the Government must ‘bite the bullet’. Someone made the decision to put electricity in every home in Ireland in the last century and if it meant dragging 100 poles up a hillside to get someone connected, it was done.

“The Communications Minister Dermot Ahern TD is beginning to talk about the Government getting a return for investment on infrastructure. He rightly argues that it owns the digital television spectrum and should get a return on that. But no one really knows what kind of payback broadband will facilitate. There’s a strong belief that it is going to be central to Ireland’s social, economic, industrial and scientific future. The Government needs to be objective about this and make one of those Whitaker and Lemass decisions. We’ve got to do this because it is the future.

“The impact this will make will be clear. It would push us up the league table as an economic entity and make Ireland more attractive for foreign direct investment. South Korea has done it and Estonia, which has a population of only 1.4 million people, has wired every single home for broadband. Why can’t Ireland get this right?

“The history of the development of technology is littered with the experts not getting the future right, whether it’s IBM’s Tom Watson claiming that one day a single room would contain all the computers of the world, to Bill Gates dismissing the potential of the internet. It’s impossible to predict the ultimate outcome, but one thing is clear, technology is becoming as vital as electricity. It is all about connectivity. Broadband in every home will play a role in bridging the gap in society between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. This is something that the Government must simply do.”

O’Hare says the tenure of the existing ISC ends in a year’s time and he hopes that its tenure will have resulted in an impact in people’s lives insofar as how its recommendations on how IT can help facilitate better education, healthcare and government are taken on board. “Our role is purely advisory and we cannot dictate what needs to be done”, he says. “People often take a very glib attitude to e-enabling anything or round on this ‘e’ word. The fact is forget about the ‘e’ and look at doing things better through technology. Look at Government, for example, and the impact its decisions have on people’s lives.

“We recently recommended that some of the ambitions for Ireland’s e-government needed to be reined in. Notable projects such as the ROS set a very high bar and people became very ambitious. But it’s very hard and dangerous to put precise dates on such things as eliminating waiting lists in our hospitals. The best thing is to consider improving processes in all the departments and look at the population’s ability to absorb change. For example, one of the recommendations we made is to remember that not everyone will be computer literate and remember to make telephone services a major part of any infrastructure or service change. In rolling out e-government it will be vital that those responsible for the projects won’t lose sight of the population’s ability to absorb technology.”

O’Hare says that he saw the mission of the ISC in the year ahead as being one to win hearts and minds in terms of using technology to make Ireland a proper knowledge society, a thought provocateur so to speak.

“We’ll be less a commission making absolute recommendations, but more about showing people what is possible. We’ll look at best practice in other countries and hold seminars and think tanks on issues such as cyber security and bridging the digital divide. There are plenty of brilliant, capable people working in education, health and local government who know their jobs. Perhaps if they are exposed to new thinking then it will provoke a multiplier effect in terms of technology adoption. That’s how we are going to go about it,” O’Hare concludes.

By John Kennedy

Dr Danny O’Hare
Position: chairman of the Information Society Commission
Education: conferred with multiple qualifications from institutions, including a degree and a masters from University College Galway, as well as post-doctorate from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and honorary doctorates from National University of Ireland, University of Dublin and Queens University Belfast.
Other roles: chairman of the Food Safety Authority, Ballymun Regeneration Project and Independent Hospitals Association of Ireland. Board member of Media Lab Europe and Calor.