Oracle urges focus on e-citizens


26 Nov 2002

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Oracle has stamped a huge footprint over e-government, not just in Ireland where its database and financial solutions grace most government departments, but also all around the world. Yet talk of simply keeping its civil service customers happy is not what the managing director of Oracle Ireland, Dermot O’Kelly, is about. He believes there is a lot of work still to be done.

“You have to ask yourself what is e-government?” he says. “Are we doing it to satisfy EU benchmarks or are we doing it to satisfy the citizen? There is quite a big difference between them. It’s one thing getting a high score on EU benchmarks that say Ireland is the No. 1 country in Europe, but by any other measure we are not doing so well.”

A particular bone of contention for O’Kelly is the health service: “We’ve only got three and half million people in the country, why don’t we have a centralised health record? Why, when I went to the hospital the other day, was there somebody pushing records around in a trolley? It’s hopelessly inefficient.

“If I was in a car accident and ended up in hospital in Donegal, somebody there should be able to access my health records. I would get a better diagnosis. If I was allergic to penicillin they wouldn’t give it to me. I’m more likely to survive and I’d get better treatment quicker,” he adds.

The key for O’Kelly is greater efficiency, no different to the pitch used for selling e-business to the private sector. “Why did corporations go for an e-strategy? It was to actually make them more efficient. Similarly, the Government should really think about pushing e-government as an efficiency drive,” he says.

In Oracle’s own internal experience huge savings were made by the centralisation of disparate departments that suddenly found themselves interconnected. It should be the same for e-government.

While Oracle enjoys good business with the Irish Government, O’Kelly clearly feels they’re missing the big trick. “We speak to all of the regions and we would have databases deployed in a lot of these places, but that’s not the answer to making it more efficient as a whole. You need to put records in one place,” he explains.

He says that the benefits would be twofold. Firstly, there is greater efficiency because it would be easier to access and collate. Secondly, the citizen would get a better service.

While he accepts it is still early days, he is clearly concerned that the focus isn’t right. “They’ve started down the journey, but somebody needs to stop and look at where this journey is going to lead. I think that at the moment the vision has been a bit narrow, based on what the e-benchmarks are. I can understand why the Government gets driven in that direction, but e-government should be about making government interaction a much more efficient and pleasant process,” he continues.

In its own research at an e-government forum, Oracle found that there was a huge gap between what citizens and what governments perceived to be the benefits that online technologies could deliver. Citizens talked of an improved health service. Governments talked of tax. “They’re at opposite ends of the scale and they need to find the common ground. They’re both right, but where are they going to put their emphasis?” says O’Kelly.

He knows where he stands: “As a citizen I don’t see any real interaction. What we’ve got is tax online. I do my taxes once a year, but where’s the real benefit to me in that? It’s mildly easier, but there’s no interaction and I don’t get anything back. I want to be able to transact with the Government in a conversation online and I want it to be efficient. If they’ve got my name and address, I want it to be everywhere. This is what Reach and the e-broker is all about. It’s the start of that journey,” he states.

Despite his criticisms he believes Ireland is still in a better position than most countries to make e-government work. “We have a unique opportunity because of the size of our country,” he says. “In Oracle’s experience we find that most of the governments that have been most successful are smaller countries where they can implement things across the whole population quite quickly. We’ve done work in places such as Iceland, Estonia and Denmark that have got real systems working that are citizen-centric. In Denmark, for example, there has been a lot of good work done around the health sector.”

For Oracle, involvement with the public sector is a journey that began a long time ago. Some 25 years ago it was building a database for the CIA that effectively launched the company. Public sector business is still of huge importance. In Ireland this includes building the government’s framework for managing financial transactions as well as supplying its database products.

“Government is the biggest sector for Ireland and it’s probably our biggest sector worldwide,” says O’Kelly. “We probably provide more solutions to the public sector than anybody.”

Across both portfolios, Oracle sells itself as uniquely secure and rarely resists taking potshots at bug-ridden Microsoft.

“Do you want to have to have a weekly patch for security or would you rather buy a database that actually is always going to be secure?” asks O’Kelly, adopting his company’s favourite pitch and bitch tactic.

He effortlessly drifts into Oracle corporate speak: “Reliability, availability and scalability, that’s what matters to people. If it’s a system that is going to be up all the time, it has got to be able to scale to accommodate an endless amount of data – and it’s got to be secure.”

This reasoning must have played its part in making Oracle an almost certain winner in the current bid to set up the public e-broker service run by the Reach agency.

“We are a part of a couple of consortiums. We did not prime a pitch because the idea is that we will be involved with the winning consortium,” he says with a fair degree of confidence. Because Oracle has a long history with Reach, it’s hard to argue with him.

“I took over Oracle two years ago and Reach was a number one priority then. We’ve got a pretty good understanding of it. They need to execute it now. I think people are looking for something from it.

“When you get into things that involve putting citizen information on a centralised database, the one thing a citizen wants to be absolutely sure of is that it’s secure. Without blowing our own trumpet, Oracle is pretty well recognised for being secure,” he says.

The Oracle sales pitch may be a familiar one but O’Kelly is very clear that the time is right for the Government to listen.

“You can draw a parallel in the private sector. It started to employ e-business technology when times got tough, when it was forced into it. When times were good it didn’t really care. Now is the time when the Government has to look at what technology can do for it,” he concludes.