Unlocking hype into reality

28 Aug 2003

Reach’s resumption of the procurement process for the Public Services Broker (PSB) and the selection of four suppliers — Accenture, BearingPoint, HP Services Consulting & Integration and Siemens Business Service — to continue to participate in the programme was met with a mixture of relief, praise and scepticism by the many stakeholders in and spectators of e-government in Ireland.

Over 25 high-profile telcos tendered for this lucrative multimillion government contract 18 months ago. Reach originally hoped to make a decision on the supplier of the broker, a crucial part of Ireland’s e-government strategy, by the end of July last year, with construction to begin a few weeks later. History has proven that it was not to be.

Explaining the delays, Victor Galvin, assistant director with Reach, says that its board of management had requested that before pressing ahead with the procurement the agency needed to “further develop and refine its thinking on how the broker should be designed and deployed, and what features it should encompass”.

Nonetheless, the delay means that many other government services that are set to go online have to be postponed, since the PSB is the component that is meant to tie disparate government agencies and their services together. In February, in an update on the progress of e-government in Ireland, the Government said that the slow delivery of the PSB was the “biggest issue” in the development of e-government here.

Indeed, when Reach came under fire from the Department of Finance last year for the planning, management and excessive expenditure of the programme, which revealed a lack of confidence in the management of the broker and operating costs, this indicated that a period of reflection was needed.

Frank Bannister, a Trinity College Dublin researcher in the field of e-government, suggests that the technology of the PSB is going to run ahead of the political reality.

“All e-government strategies, I suspect, are experiencing difficulties and I doubt if Ireland is an exception. However, the reasons for the problems vary. I don’t think there is a lack of strategic vision in Ireland. There are some pretty good thinkers in government ICT…but of course there is no point in having great chiefs if there is a severe shortage of Indians. There are problems in project management and implementation,” he warns.

“It is running into the realities of the problems of existing structures and there is a tremendous amount of inertia in such systems. E-government threatens departments’ positions and people’s power bases. It shifts power around and reallocates responsibilities. That is where the difficulties and turf wars start arising,” he explains.

Galvin readily admits that departmental co-operation is becoming a challenge for Reach. “It is certainly a very big business challenge to build trust across organisational boundaries. That is true particularly when you are trying to build cross-boundary service deliveries, where you’re trying to get one department to accept the credentials of, let’s say, an authentication token that originates from another department so that the department can deliver its services based on that. There is a level of trust required that will have to be built up,” he adds.

“It is up to agencies themselves to buy into this idea of integrated service delivery to the customer and to make sure that their services are putting the customer first and using the Reach infrastructure to do that. This involves working across departmental boundaries and that’s an issue that will have to be grasped and dealt with. It is not impossible, but it is a challenge and will remain a challenge,” he says.

Research by IQ Content earlier this year found that a significant disparity exists between high-level rhetoric and implementing the realities of e-government at agency level. According to its managing director Morgan McKeagney: “Behind the glitter of flagship projects many state agencies are struggling to understand what the practical implications of e-government are for their organisations and to find the time and resources needed to deliver and implement a coherent e-government strategy.”

“Despite good progress on many fronts, significant problems still remain,” McKeagney claims. “The majority of public sector agencies (75pc) claims to be experiencing difficulties implementing e-government strategies. Respondents identified a lack of strategic vision (40pc) and a shortage of the appropriate human resources (20pc) as the main barriers to effective e-government implementation.”

The survey also highlights how human resource constraints are impacting on the delivery of e-government services. Some 75pc of public sector websites are managed by just one person. And in most cases, this person spends less than half of his or her time on web-related activities.

Apart from these difficulties, as well as the lack of affordable broadband (an OECD study ranked Ireland 27th out of 30 countries in terms of penetration of broadband technologies) and low public adoption of online transactions (34pc of the population currently access the internet from home), another restraint on e-government are concerns about data privacy, data protection and data retention. In contrast to the lame-man-of-Europe track record on providing national broadband access, Ireland — or at least our current Minister of Justice — is staunchly determined to lead the way with draconian measures of data retention.

Galvin insists, however, that a fundamental principle of the broker is that the citizen owns the data and that this data will be more secure in a paperless-based system. “The broker aims to be a means of accessing public services, not a tool to gather and integrate data about individuals,” he says. This will become clearer over time.

According to Bannister, another unknown is public uptake. “Research commissioned by Reach found that only one group, 18-25-year-old males, is ready and enthusiastic about the idea of a broker. Other groups have different perspectives. Young mothers, for example, want to talk with a real person. In practice, even Reach recognises that possibly as much as 80pc of public service users will not use the PSB; indeed as many as half will, as one official put it, ‘walk through the door’.”

Another disconcerting aspect of e-government in Ireland is the absence of detail and sometimes clarity on costs and benefits. “I am not aware of a published report or an internal report that has been completed on it [the effectiveness of e-government on costs savings] yet, but there is an expectation internally that because services are being made available generally and through the broker they don’t have to be replicated. So there are economies of scale certainly to be had,” Galvin notes. Financial analysis, it seems, is absent. So far, there has been little attempt to quantify the benefits even in non-financial terms. How much time might a particular e-service save each year for how many people, for example?

Reach’s period of reflection was much needed. The PSB is an imaginative and challenging concept. It has the potential to change significantly the way government services are delivered in Ireland with enormous benefits to both citizen and State. It also has the potential to re-arrange existing public sector structures. Integrated services imply integrated or at least co-ordinated organisations capable of delivering them. But well before this stage is reached there are many practical problems to be solved and questions to be answered, as Bannister puts it: “As often happens when elegant concept is translated into messy practice, the devil is likely to be in the detail.”

By Lisa Deeney