Little less conversation, more interaction

7 Jan 2003

Compared with previous years, 2002 was a year of more modest achievement in e-government terms.

In November 2001, Ireland came out top in an EU benchmarking exercise that measured progress in the delivery of online public services. It was a piece of unexpected good news that was milked for all it was worth by the government at the time and referred to at every opportunity since.

It is arguably the worst thing that could have happened to Ireland’s e-government project. Having been making good progress behind the scenes, the country’s e-enabling initiative was suddenly front-page news and held up as the latest achievement of this wondrous beast, the Celtic tiger. However, being told you are best at something means everyone expects you to be the best and with the benchmarking rosette came a huge burden of expectation. Major strides towards e-government were expected in 2002.

The past year will be seen as one where e-government climbed towards the top of the policy agenda both at national and international levels. A new eEurope strategy was agreed at the Seville summit in June, building on the Lisbon Summit of 2000 that set the goal of transforming Europe into the world’s leading knowledge-based economy. In March, Ireland had set out its own stall on the issue with the publication of the New Connections document, the government action plan on the information society. (This was the second such action plan, the first having been published nearly four years ago, in January 1999.)

The objective of New Connections was to identify the key infrastructure that is needed to underpin the information society and set the roadmap for its achievement. Along with communications infrastructure and legal/regulatory environment, e-government was recognised as one of the three core enablers of a knowledge economy.

E-government is best seen not as a supertanker steadily moving forward, but as a flotilla of mini-projects all moving in the same direction at varying speeds. The New Connections document lists a whopping 70 separate projects of varying size and states of completion. Already up and running are the business and public portals Basis and Oasis, as well as Revenue On-Line Services, the Courts Service, FÁS Job Bank, eTenders government procurement portal and eLibraries. During 2002, good progress was made in a number of other areas:
· The first two phases of the landmark project to put the Land Registry’s millions of paper-based records online was completed
· ECabinet, the world’s first system for managing the work of a government executive, went live. Built by a US company, Invision, it allows information to be securely distributed between government departments
· Progress was made in several Southern Health Board initiatives to deliver healthcare to citizens in the Cork and Kerry region using technology. These include a project to link GPs to hospital and health board laboratory systems, which is being piloted by 10 practices in the region and is expected to be rolled out in early 2003.
· A new searchable database of 8,000 State outlets around the country went live at
· The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development introduced new computerised accounting and management information system
· On the infrastructure side, the Government chose Eircom and Vodafone to provide a voice and data network – the government data virtual private network – to form the backbone of the e-government initiative.

Meanwhile, progress on the Government’s flagship project, the Public Sector Broker (PSB) – the engine that will drive the delivery of online services to the public – has been considerably slower. The request for tender for companies to build the broker was issued back in January. Out of the 28 companies that tendered for the project, six – Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, KPMG Consulting, Logica, PA and Siemens – were shortlisted to submit detailed proposals. As the year draws to a close, a final shortlist of names has still to be announced yet the PSB is scheduled to go live next summer.

Industry experts estimate that it will take six to eight months to build, so even assuming that a final shortlist of names is issued in the new year and a winner is chosen soon afterwards, it looks like being late-2003 before the PSB swings into action, and thereby overshooting the planned launch date.

The last major e-government milestone of 2002 is likely to be the launch of a new report from the Information Society Commission (ISC), the government agency responsible for setting the policy agenda for the knowledge economy. The report, due to be published today (19 December), is likely to be influential in determining how the Government moves forward on crucial issues such as broadband, e-business adoption and delivery of e-government.

In fact, the challenges of moving towards e-government can be neatly summed up by problems I faced when trying to contact the ISC recently. Given its important remit, it should be a high-profile organisation, but not only could directory enquiries not find a listing for it, several government departments also blanked on the name. After being passed from department to department, I finally got through to the ISC – or someone’s voicemail at least.

The ISC readily admits to having a low external profile and recently appointed a PR agency to address just this issue, but it is worrying to find it barely known by colleagues internally. This confirms suspicions that the agencies of the State still very much operate as separate islands of information and all the aspirational talk about ‘joined-up government’ remains just that – talk.

Pictured: Government buildings