Technology to help public services perform better

24 Apr 2008

Ireland can rightly claim success in some of its e-government initiatives but others drew heavy criticism in a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) earlier this year.

The report revealed a substantial number of planned projects were never started or else abandoned. In all, 143 projects were planned for the e-government initiative. Of this number, 86 are fully live, 45 are in progress and 24 never got off the ground.

The report cited budget overruns such as the Public Services Broker, which was intended to be the central point of access for citizen information. It was originally supposed to cost €14m. By the end of 2006 that had risen to almost €37m, with ongoing running costs estimated at close to €15m per year.

The C&AG also criticised the administration of e-government projects, calling for an improvement in the management process. “All projects should have clear, measurable business objectives and time and cost targets. A much stronger project cost and performance measurement and reporting system is required, integrated with departmental and agency reporting systems.”

The report acknowledged where the Government had made progress and recognised “quantified and substantial” improvements, but it said in many other cases “claims of benefits achieved are relatively non-specific”.

In its defence, the Government pointed to a number of successes. The flagship e-government initiative, Revenue On-Line Service (ROS), is credited with improving levels of taxpayer compliance and the volumes of payments.

According to data obtained from the Department of An Taoiseach, since 2004 ROS has facilitated estimated savings of €49m on postage, printing and processing. Last year, income tax filings made over the internet rose to 74pc. Customs has collected over €21bn in taxes online.

Take-up of the online Vehicle Registration Tax facility has exceeded 90pc in some parts of the country. Overall, 41pc of car owners use the service, with an estimated saving of 125,000 queuing hours.

Around 70 different local services across 40 agencies accept online payments from the public. So far, 270,000 transactions have been processed and over €22m has been received electronically.

The Department of Finance’s e-Tenders website has 29,500 suppliers and 2,700 buyers registered. This has resulted in considerable savings for public authorities; one local authority saved €1m on four product items alone.

The Government Virtual Private Network (VPN) for voice and data traffic, which was procured by the Department of Finance, records €25m in annual savings over the past five years.

At a central level, the Government’s e-Cabinet system is said to have streamlined meetings, improved communication links between departments and eliminated significant quantities of paper.

The problem may be that information on public sector progress is not more readily available to the public.

Greg Parston (pictured), director with Accenture’s Institute for Public Service Value, has called on the Government to be more transparent in telling citizens how their tax money is spent.

He says the Government should publish an annual report like a business would, to show its stakeholders – in this case, citizens – what progress is being made.

“The public service really needs to explain to people the improvements it’s making for their money,” says Parston. “McDonald’s would. Accenture would. Any private sector organisation would explain to its customers what value they’re getting for the money they’re spending.”

Parston admitted the calculation isn’t so easy for public sector agencies, whose value can’t be summed up in a simple profit and loss format.

Nevertheless, other research has shown the public isn’t hearing what it needs to about how Government uses the tax take. “In the absence of knowing, what citizens believe is all public services are inefficient or are wasting money, when actually the evidence isn’t there for that.”

But systems do exist to allow governments transparency on developments in the public sector. A recent report from Accenture found widespread adoption of performance measurement (PM) systems within the public sector across several countries.

Over 90pc of government executives interviewed for the report said their organisations already use, or are in the process of introducing, PM systems.

Encouragingly, Ireland is among the leading countries in PM adoption, ahead of France, Spain and Germany. Parston believes this is a positive step because using data from PM tools more proactively would also reduce the risk of budget overruns. Failed IT projects such as those identified by the C&AG report could be spotted earlier and corrected or stopped.

Colm Butler of the Department of An Taoiseach agrees that individual public services could be more open in providing data to show citizens the successful results of where their money is being spent.

But he points out that the complex nature of government is not analogous to a private corporation and the fragmented, departmental approach to public services makes it very difficult and expensive to produce an annual report for the entire public sector.

“That takes a lot of effort and money. You have to look at what it would cost to get there and the equation doesn’t work.”

However, a PM culture is beginning to take hold. The Department of An Taoiseach has recently begun using an online application to gauge the impact of benefits from projects such as the e-inclusion initiative and the drive to increase the level of electronic payments.

“Any tool that allows us to focus on where performance is good or not, has to be good,” says Butler. “We’re hoping to use this tool to start asking questions and to inform our policy direction.”

The C&AG report noted the absence of a formal e-government strategy since the beginning of 2006 and suggested this may account for a recent loss of momentum in the project.

However, Butler confirmed the Department of An Taoiseach is currently working with other departments and agencies on formulating a new action plan.

As well as acknowledging the C&AG’s work in forming the new strategy, Butler says the plan would also take into account recommendations from an OECD report due next week. “Our sense is that we should now look at more sensible uses of technology based on how government agencies perform.”

Simply throwing IT at the problem won’t cure everything, Butler points out. “Technology is one element but you’ve got to change the culture as you have to get people to work in a different way.”

Time to take a bite out of the Big Apple
There are precedents for providing members of the public with transparent information about how their services are being provided.

In February, New York City unveiled a performance reporting system that gives citizens access to data from all city agencies.

It’s the latest step in a technology strategy that has seen the city’s government become more open and accountable. Every year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Management Report includes 300 public service performance indicators.

Now, by logging onto New Yorkers can get access to the Citywide Performance Reporting (CPR) service, which includes those 300 indicators. A further 200 indicators are updated monthly and made instantly available online.

The CPR service took two years to deliver and integrates data from over 40 city agencies.

Prior to rollout, several elements needed to be put in place. Chief among them was the city’s 311 service, which was introduced five years ago and integrates all of New York’s public services.

Citizens simply call the three-digit number any time of the day or night to interact with any public agency other than the emergency services. The principle of the service is that operators who respond to 311 calls can resolve all issues without having to put the caller through to multiple departments.

The service handled 15.3 million calls last year. Since January, New Yorkers can also track the status of a public query via the internet.

With typical Big Apple chutzpah, the CPR facility has been dubbed ‘the mother of all accountability tools’.

By Gordon Smith