Promise of the presidency


18 Dec 2003

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Ireland takes over the helm of Europe next month for probably the last time — or at least for a considerably long period — now that 10 new members are poised to join in May 2004. Over the course of the next six months, we will see many ‘presidency’ events, from working groups to conferences. For those of us who are already dicing daily with the Luas works, the prospect of the screaming motorcades that have attended these events in the past is a little daunting to say the least. Although we hear that some of the really big stuff is being held in Brussels this time. So that can’t be bad.

Looking at what’s planned on the information society front, there are to be several conferences and working groups. On 26-27 February, Mary Hanafin TD, our Minister for the Information Society, is co-hosting a conference in Budapest on e-Europe. The conference will bring to a conclusion the e-Europe Plus programme for the accession countries and consider the mid-term review of the e-Europe 2005 Action Plan. The intention is to dovetail the two and to give a new information society focus for an enlarged Europe. The 10 accession states will come on board on 1 May.

The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern TD, is planning an event in Louth in April to do with broadband — or more specifically, demand stimulation. Alas, if only we could get the suppliers stimulated! Also in April, the Committee of the Regions is co-ordinating a conference in Cork to look at knowledge-based regions in the information society.

Then there’s e-Week towards the end of April in the run up to enlargement day on 1 May. This is being jointly organised by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the Department of the Taoiseach. But it is more a national event than just a Dublin event and is being supported by some of the major players in the ICT industry in Ireland. While details are still being worked on, it is envisaged that there will be a number of activities around the country to celebrate Ireland’s achievements in ICT — both as an industry and in the exploitation of technology.

Moving to May and back to Cork, the Department of Health is working on a conference to do with e-health and supporting the European citizen. May also sees a conference in Dublin to do with ICTs in education and emerging and future patterns of learning facilitated by ICTs.

June, towards the end of our presidency, sees a major e-government conference in Dublin being jointly organised by Trinity College Dublin and the Department of the Taoiseach in collaboration with the European Commission. This will see a mix of academics, practitioners, industry leaders and politicians all sharing and exchanging views on the current state of e-government — which assumes that we’ll still have e-government by then!

That being said, the big issue at almost every conference you hear about these days is interoperability — another of those words from the IT stable that tends to frighten off the more business-focused types. So interoperability is being considered by a pan-European e-government expert group that, for the next six months, is being chaired by officials from the Department of Finance.

Other big issues to be considered during the Irish presidency include digital content, where it is expected that preliminary work will commence on a proposal for a new e-content programme in time to have it get a first reading prior to the European elections. We can expect to see the Telecoms Council, chaired by Ahern, making some progress on setting up the European Network and Information Security Agency. There will be discussions too on a successor to the Safer Internet Action Plan also with a view to giving it a first reading in the run up to the European elections.

There is an expectation that the European Commission will report on national broadband strategies and the delivery of high-speed internet access at the Spring Council.

All in all, the next six months promise to be busy on the information society front. It will be interesting to see how closer we are to broadband at the end of June. With the 10 new states joining the EU on 1 May, it will certainly be a different place, with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities facing all of us.

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An interesting development is taking place in the administrations both North and South where public servants on both sides of the border are coming together in a joint programme of education to promote innovation in public administration. It’s being described by some of those associated with it as an initiative to promote entrepreneurship because it’s about creating a culture of trying new approaches to solving old problems by taking a new and inventive look at how the government and the citizen interact.

Over the past few weeks public servants have been offered the chance to take part in a Masters of Science in Innovation Management and it is being jointly run by the University of Ulster and the Letterkenny Institute of technology. Recently accredited by the authorities on both sides of the border, the degree course has evolved from a dialogue that Letterkenny and the University of Ulster at Magee have been having with the Department of the Taoiseach and the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Belfast.

In both jurisdictions much effort has been going into the exploitation of technology in the modernisation of the public service. The handle of e-government has tended to concentrate the focus on the technology and not enough on the opportunities for its exploitation.

This course aims to get beyond the technology and the technologists. It is being directed at business managers as the people with the main interest in improving the business of government — people who are more interested in getting the service right while leaving it to the technologists to provide the required solution. Some see it as making sure the IT tail is not wagging the business dog.

Another interesting aspect of the course is that it is an action learning course. This means that people on the course learn in the context of work or projects that they are currently working on. That way they get to apply what they are learning on an ongoing basis. By working with other innovators both North and South, they also get to share ideas and experiences with similar people working in related fields. Jack O’Herlihy of Letterkenny Institute of Technology has a lot of experience of using action learning as a successful methodology. He already runs courses on innovation management for businesses. So the formula has been tried and tested.

Reforming the public service is no piece of cake. Over many years the tendency has been to set up more and more bureaucracies to implement policies. With the best will in the world, bureaucracies tend to sink deep roots to support their own growth and development. The problems come when you try to get at the roots. Anybody who starts tampering here runs the risk of being bitten unless they are well prepared.

Just look at how the health services are reacting to change, and they haven’t been around that long. It will be interesting to see the shape of the health ‘forest’ when Brennan, Hanly and the rest have been visited on this remarkable part of the public service — remarkable, that is, for the number of bureaucracies and representatives that it takes to provide a health service for such a small number of people.

So you see, innovation in the public service takes a lot of courage and a hell of a lot of skill. It also takes people who are open to new ideas and who are prepared to take risks. Taking risks in the public sector is not something that public servants are encouraged to do. Just look at how public representatives react when things don’t go as planned. The reaction of many public servants has been to take the safer option and avoid rocking boats. But rising costs and expectations of service and transparency are changing all that. And risks are fine if they are properly managed and if people are prepared to learn from them. Equipping people to do that is one aspect of the innovation management course.

Hanafin recently launched the brochure for the course. She said the potential that technologies now provided in the context of modernisation was breathtaking. The scope for streamlining service delivery and smartening up the administrative processes needs to be exploited by all who work in the public service because of the overriding mission to work for the public good. She also pointed out that the public good didn’t just apply to civil servants — that the public also had responsibilities and obligations to their fellow citizens. She added that in the rush to improve service delivery it was too easy to forget about serving those who also pay but don’t necessarily benefit.

Coming at this stage of the modernisation process that has been ongoing since 1994, and which has seen a greater emphasis on the use of technology, it’s a reflection on the maturity of the process that the need for entrepreneurs in the public service is becoming more and more apparent. Change comes slow sometimes. But the pace of change in the public sector has to increase if we are to see an agile and responsive public service that meets the expectations of fast-moving citizens and businesses that are surviving and thriving in the global economy.

Flexibility of response to change and the redirection of service delivery away from a provider focus to being centred on citizens’ needs are at the core of this programme. Equipping change agents to manage this process is the purpose of this masters degree in innovation management.

By Syl O’Connor