The price of automation

27 Nov 2003

One of the main ideas behind e-government has been to automate as much as possible of the repetitive, straightforward stuff and to organise information to make it easier for people to get at and use the services. It is about minimising the hassle that people have to go through to get what they’re entitled to. This is on the basis that it’s not really fair in this age of connectivity and powerful computers to continue to make people jump through all those bureaucratic hoops to get an allowance or some assistance to which they have a right as a citizen.

Recently, a significant milestone was reached on this road with the launch of the new General Register Office (GRO) system. The GRO has come into the digital age as a pivotal part of ‘e-government’. The GRO is the place that keeps records of all births, deaths and marriages and is, therefore, a key reference place for government agencies to verify claims as to birth, marriage and so on, when people come looking for benefits and such like. For citizens this means that eventually they won’t have to queue at places such as Lombard Street in Dublin to get certified state information (ie, a birth certificate) and then go somewhere else to hand it back (the Passport Office).

The launch of the new e-enabled GRO took place at the Government Press Centre in Merrion Street. Mary Hanafin TD, Minister for the Information Society; Mary Coughlan TD, Minister for Social and Family Affairs; and Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children, did the honours. One interesting aspect of the launch was to do with the link that has been made to the new child benefit system at the Department of Social and Family Affairs (or ‘SFA’ to some of their clients). Now, when a child is born, the GRO is notified by the hospital or somebody with authority to verify the existence of new human life. The GRO then registers the birth, gives the child a PSN (personal services number) and tell the SFA, which promptly puts everything in motion to ensure that the parents receive the child benefit to which they have a right. The beauty is they don’t have to apply anymore.

That is a very small but excellent example of taking ‘noise’ out of a system that is a veritable cacophony of bureaucratic discords and disharmonies.

Bureaucratic nightmares are something we readily associate with the old communist states. Recently, I was talking to a few people from EU applicant countries. One particular lady spoke about how her country had adjusted to the post-communist era and how they were looking forward to joining the EU. The first thing that came up was the expectation of a hat full of money from the structural funds. Ireland is seen in this as in other areas as the role model because of the perception of the tremendous success we had in the great days of the structural funds. But the other thing that set me thinking was what the lady said about the aftermath of communism.

She mentioned that there were areas of the country that had old heavy industries and mines, where in the old days everybody did what they were told to do by the government. When you left school your future was all planned out for you (with due account taken of your propensity to cause trouble or rock the boat, so that they could find you the right ‘niche’). You didn’t have to worry about applying for things because you got whatever you were due automatically. You didn’t have to worry about what career to change to, where to buy a house, how to get the money, if you could afford to go to the doctor and so on. In fact, you didn’t have to take much responsibility for anything except turning up for work every day and keeping your nose clean. Everything was automatic.

The legacy for huge numbers of these unfortunate people is that now they don’t know how to take the initiative. They lack a sense of control over their own destiny. They are finding it difficult to survive and prosper in a world that rewards risk-takers and enterprise – a world that has been built on people with imagination, vision and the courage to take control of their future. While there are many who have had no trouble in making and profiting from the adjustment to capitalism (some of them illegally), there are quite a lot of people who are bewildered and don’t necessarily see the prospect of joining an expanded Europe as making life any better for them. Things aren’t automatic anymore, especially when it comes to deciding on career moves and such like.

With the objective of giving them everything they were ‘entitled to’, the state had effectively taken away their sense of personal responsibility. Then they were left lost and stranded when the state was dismantled and the ‘everyone-for-themselves’ regime took over. Connecting this with the launch of the ‘new GRO’ and with what SFA have done with the child benefit scheme got me thinking further about where e-government could lead us.

I wonder if there is a danger of over-automating things. Is there a case to take a closer look to see if it might be better for people to be encouraged to retain their responsibility? Could it be possible that we are at risk of creating a generation or generations of people who won’t be able to think for themselves? Should we be matching efforts to give people their entitlements with similar efforts to ensure that they discharge their obligations and responsibilities? Is there a danger that we will get carried away with all this technology and, when it’s our turn to experience a total grid failure, discover that we’re totally lost?

I’m not saying we should stop modernising government. But maybe we should tread carefully and think more about the downstream consequences of all this automation. We shouldn’t be throwing away the paddles for our canoes. It would be unfortunate if, through too much pampering, we were to paint ourselves into a corner and limit our potential to innovate or think for ourselves.

By Syl O’Connor