Ireland must improve net access to beat e-govt lag

25 Feb 2005

Ireland needs to increase the rate of public access to the internet and particularly to broadband if it is to improve its position relative to other European nations adopting e-government, IDC has said.

In a recent survey IDC ranked 15 Western European countries on e-government on two key factors: readiness and sophistication of services. One of the measures for a high readiness rating is internet access, as this is essential for ensuring the population is equipped to transact with public services via the web and similar channels.

The findings were revealed at yesterday’s e-government conference hosted by IDC in Dublin. The analyst firm concluded that the demand side is well catered for, as Ireland has several major government-to-citizen and government-to-business services now online. However, general internet access here is low relative to the leading European countries and the broadband situation is worse.

According to IDC data, approximately half of the country is online, calculated on internet users as a percentage of population. (Other estimates have put this level well below 50pc, however.) By contrast Sweden and Denmark, who topped the IDC e-government survey, have internet usage levels of 79pc and 72pc respectively.

Moreover, Ireland is second last out of 15 countries for broadband adoption among citizens – only Greece rated lower. Ireland was in the same position for business take-up of broadband, a factor IDC consulting director Duncan Brown said was of more concern. Speaking at the conference he said: “It’s maybe an indication that Irish businesses don’t understand the benefits of e-government because if they understood its value, they would more readily adopt broadband.”

Afterwards Brown said that lower costs would improve the current broadband situation. “Just by cutting price, you dramatically up the rate of adoption. You have to make it cheap. At the moment, it’s not seen as an essential service such as the telephone is.”

He pointed out that the broadband market in the UK has only really become competitive over the past 12 months or so. “The tipping point hasn’t reached Ireland yet, but it’s inevitable,” he told “Eircom can delay it but they can’t stop it.” Brown added that the Government and the telecoms regulator have roles to play in improving Ireland’s position in terms of readiness for e-government.

He said there were “no major holes” in the extent, quality and innovation of Irish e-government services now available. It is not important to have slick websites or use leading-edge technology for its own sake, he added. “There’s always the temptation to look for the things that are cool, but it’s best to keep it simple, practical and pragmatic. Tax returns aren’t particularly sexy, but they are essential.”

Brown emphasised that sophisticated e-government services were only part of the picture. “It’s not enough to provide them, it’s about how accessible they are … The issue for Ireland is in the readiness factor, particularly in relation to broadband.”

He urged the Government to pay closer attention to usage levels for online public services in the future. “The big question our research doesn’t answer is, how many people are actually using this stuff. There is a need to measure who’s using it and what they’re using it for. Unless you’re doing that, what’s the point? You have to ask: are people getting the benefit of it?”

Later in the conference, IDC consultant John Gilsenan drew comparisons between Ireland and Denmark; the two countries are quite similar in size and population but Denmark is at the forefront of e-government adoption. Every year Denmark publishes an action plan outlining its vision and strategy for e-government. Having been a leader in e-government traditionally, the country has been less influenced by EU initiatives in this area. Denmark’s ambitious targets for the end of 2006 are for 60pc of citizens and 95pc of businesses to use e-government services. “Direct comparisons are difficult; Denmark was early to use IT in the public sector so e-government followed on naturally,” Gilsenan said. “There was also high internet usage from the beginning, so supply and demand dovetailed.”

According to Gilsenan, many of the reasons for Denmark’s leading position are historical and cultural, he said, and therefore can’t be easily repeated. By being an early adopter, Denmark is actually now facing some integration problems with its IT systems.

Encouragingly, Ireland does not rank far behind Denmark in the level of sophistication of online services, Gilsenan added. “Readiness of the country is what we now need to focus on. We’re way behind. PC usage and internet access must increase, otherwise all the good work that’s being done to provide services to citizens will not succeed,” he concluded

By Gordon Smith