Established in 1999 as the fulcrum for Ireland’s e-government strategy the Reach project, and more specifically, the plan to build a Public Services Broker (PSB), has been doing more than most to fulfil the remit of joined-up government.
“It’s well regarded internationally as breaking new ground, especially in the completeness and coherence of it vision for transforming delivery of public services,” says Reach deputy director Victor Galvin. “In developing the infrastructure and shared services, there is no existing model to learn from and consequently progress can sometimes be a little slower than hoped for. The PSB is and will continue to be a work in progress and will need to evolve as technology and business demands change in the future.”
Such is the scale and originality of the project that is has been nominated as one of five Irish finalists – out of a total of 52 competitors from across the EU – for this year’s e-government eAwards. The annual conference and competition will be held this November in Manchester, coinciding with the UK’s tenure in the EU presidency.
The Irish contingent will also include Meath County Council for its work in taking communities online, the Local Government Computer Services Board for Mobhaile, the Department of An Taoiseach for its eCabinet initiative and the Revenue Commissioners for its ongoing innovation around the Revenue On-Line Service portal. Not only have they been shortlisted for top awards, all have been invited to demonstrate their projects at the event.
Despite its high profile, it’s not always understood that there are two elements to the Reach project, each dependent upon the other in a complex undertaking. On the one side is back office inter-agency communication, a platform for enabling Reach to do its job. At the front end, there is the Reachservices website, where citizens are able to access a single point of online interaction with the State. The site went live in 2004 and several projects are close to completion that will trigger the next level of online interaction, including a Revenue PAYE online service in the New Year.
The concept that hangs it all together is the PSB. Originally envisaged as a vast vault of information, Galvin now talks of it as “a form of web services that can trigger activity across various agencies”.
“Essentially the PSB is set of infrastructure and shared services,” he says. “Full benefits will be achieved when a critical mass of services and transactions are facilitated by the system. Experience to date indicates that significant savings can be achieved by the timely supply of data and information to agencies dealing with the public replacing paper-based systems, by the electronic transfer of documents and by the provision of shared services.”
He points to the Inter-Agency Messaging System (IAMS) and the savings and efficiencies it has brought to child benefit processes as an example of improved information delivery. The IAMS technology underpins the PSB, brokering the exchange of customer-related information between different agencies.
The automatic exchange of customs documents between the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Agriculture is an example of replacing paper in heavy document-based processes and identity management for the Revenue’s PAYE project is an example of shared services.
Seamus O’Farrell, senior business manager at Reach, gives more insight into the challenges. “The serious development work has been done around IAMS combined with the validation of identity,” he says. “It’s about referencing existing databases within all the parameters of existing data protection legislation to validate the supplied information to a level that’s appropriate to the service.”
He explains: “There different levels of service. Pure information seeking can be quite anonymous and there’s no requirement to look for any more information than is absolutely needed. The supply of information that would ordinarily be provided over a counter by means of a leaflet can also be supplied by Reachservices.ie on an anonymous basis. But services that would lead to the supply of benefits or payment require a higher level of validation. What we’ve tried to do is replicate in practical terms the type of validation that would be required and Reachservices.ie has been designed to let people register those interactions.”
Submitting PAYE tax returns through Reachservices.ie is the next big step. “It’s an opportunity for people to regularise their tax returns online,” says O’Farrell. “We could supply a registered authenticated customer to Revenue and it could fulfil the service without having to restate all the information, at the same time as being satisfied that the identity is authenticated to a level that is appropriate to the service.”
Going forward, O’Farrell is confident that other agencies will come onboard. “We’re looking to a critical mass of numbers and services that would make it all the more imperative for other agencies to come towards us with their services. They’re coming towards us already, but it’s about fitting it in with their own schedules.”
Long terms, the fundamental principles of Reach are as strong as ever. A single point of entry for the citizens will do away with multiple form filling, allowing other agencies to harness the channel without driving up their own development costs. The upshot is process re-engineering, public service modernisation and streamlining of services that that will save money and increase efficiency.
By Ian Campbell