The current controversy over e-voting notwithstanding, Ireland’s foray into online public service provision has thus far been largely successful. Since 1999, when the government’s New Connections document was published, a range of public services, from tax collection and motor licence renewal, from public contract tenders to visa applications have gone online. As a result, Ireland is often seen by its European neighbours as a pioneer in the area.
In this context, the theme of last week’s IDC E-government Conference in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel – ‘The e-government hype is over; now it’s time for delivery’ – seemed well off the mark, as opening speaker Mary Hanafin TD (pictured) was quick to point out.
“The implementation of services is something that’s moved along very quietly and very well over the last few years,” asserted the Government Chief Whip and ‘e-minister’ with responsibility for the information society. What hype there has been has, she argued, not been about e-government itself but about the technology. It was time, said the Minister, to call a halt. “The hype about technology is over but the hype about value and efficiency of government services is just beginning.”
At this point, the Minister might have detected uncomfortable shuffling of feet and distracted glancing at watches because a sizeable chunk of her audience seemed to be there for the sole purpose of pushing their wares on public servants with money to spend on new technology. It should come as little surprise that a commercial conference about e-government organised by a top technology research house should end up being dominated by technology vendors.
But while some of them made an effort to explain what technology could do for the cause of e-government, too often the presentations degenerated into cheerleading for a particular product. It was unsurprising when, after yet another vendor presentation, one delegate was heard to mutter: “Well that’s the ad break over with.”
The truth is that, as with most conferences, the real value of the event for delegates was the networking opportunity. According to the organisers, some 150 public sector delegates attended the event. One of them, Tommy Coakley, IT manager at the Eastern Health Shared Services, said that as with most e-government conferences “the coffee breaks were the most fruitful period”. Another delegate buzzing around the adjoining exhibition was Xuejun Liang, first secretary, Science & Technology, at the Chinese Embassy in Dublin who had come to find out the “Ireland’s progress in the e-government area.”
Back in the conference hall, Jan Duffy, group vice-president, solutions research at IDC, was emphasising the importance of effective measurement tools to a wider e-government strategy.
“It’s important in the delivery phase of e-government to continue to demonstrate that it does add value to the government process,” she explained. “What we’ve been doing so far is asserting the improvement in government services. Measurement will allow us to see if they are rooted in reality.”
Later on, Graham Colclough, vice-president, Global Public Sector at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, provided an interesting summary of Europe’s e-government progress to date. Quoting data from CGE&Y research done in mid-2003, he showed how Ireland was ahead of many other countries in the adoption of e-government services, particularly those that generated revenue. In areas like car and company registration, permits and licences and income tax filing, the Irish Government has sought to maximise revenue generating opportunities. Overall, Ireland scored third in Europe in terms of online sophistication and fifth in terms of full availability of online services.
Returning to technology, Derrick McCourt, public sector manager from Microsoft, noted that the main challenge facing governments worldwide was getting diverse IT systems to work together and driving extra functionality from existing IT infrastructure. “Governments have neither the time nor the money to rip and replace their systems,” he asserted. He also drew an interesting parallel between private sector companies and government bodies in that both organisations have decision makers at the top, supported by an IT department that has to deliver on the business objectives.
Despite these insights, still missing from the event was any serious effort to discuss important issues relating to e-government, such as the radical cultural change needed to pave the way for inter-governmental sharing of information and the introduction of more customer-centric working practices. Thin on the ground, too, were senior public sector managers to speak about their experiences of implementing e-government in Ireland, an omission compounded by the dearth of case studies of e-government in action.
There were just two of these: one about the Causeway Project, a joint initiative by the criminal justice organisations in Northern Ireland to improve their performance by sharing information electronically; and one about the online motor tax system here in the Republic.
Overall, the most unambiguous message coming from this event was suggested by the packed attendance itself: that the subject of e-government is still a hot topic in the corridors of power.
By Brian Skelly