e-Government is the term applied to the use of information and communications technologies to provide and improve public-sector services. Despite some bad press, Ireland has a decent enough track record when it comes to the implementation of e-government services that have delivered improved services to citizens and eliminated antiquated and labour-intensive work practices.
Services such as those available through the ROS, MotorTax, PublicJobs, e-Tenders, CRO, CSO, Births Deaths & Marriages, Public Libraries and Citizens Information websites have in some instances transformed how we interact with government. Services that meet real customer needs will be successful; within the first year of launch for example nearly 50% of eligible drivers were renewing their motor tax online.
However, with some bad experiences behind them over the past few years (PPARS, the national health portal and e-Voting are top of mind) in addition to unprecendented restraint on public spending it is likely that investment in e-government services will come crashing to a halt. In the midst of all the cost-cutting it is worth reminding government that ongoing, properly managed investment in e-government initiatives can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of public service delivery.
A recent article by McKinsey in the US highlights three barriers to the successful implementation of e-government initiatives. These are; ineffective governance, lack of web-specific capabilities and reluctance to allow user participation in the creation of applications and content. I think it would not be unfair to suggest that in Ireland we suffer from all three. Let’s have a look at some of the kinds of recommendations that McKinsey make that should not be ignored.
Improve Governance – Public services must move to a governance model in which e-government initiatives are owned by “line of business” executives brought together as a cross-functional team. Investment business cases should be grounded on real data and realistic projections. Ongoing management decisions should be data-driven. Low-risk proofs-of-concept should be undertaken to assess in a low-cost way the potential take-up and success of new initiatives.
Develop Web Capabilities – Government agencies need to develop in-house capabilities in critical areas such as usability, web design, web analytics, and customer insights with a view to developing and optimising websites that meet customer expectations. The skills required to design, develop and manage Internet-based services need to be recognised and where these skills are core to the ongoing management of e-services they should be internal and focused in a small multi-disciplinary team of web specialists.
External agencies can supplement internal staff as required, however the persistent over-relianance on external consultancies inevitably proves not to be cost-effective or efficient in delivering services. Management of vendors is something that requires particular attention from Irish public sector bodies to ensure the quality of service delivery and value for money from investments. Specific training in the selection and management of vendors is something that is surely lacking here.
Engender User Participation – When it comes to web 2.0, McKinsey highlights how some innovative government agencies in the US are proactively inviting citizens, businesses, and other agencies to be involved in contributing to or creating new applications and content. The District of Columbia, for example, recently ran a contest called “Apps for Democracy,” which invited developers to create applications that would give residents access to data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules. Forty seven applications were developed in just one month. The cost of hiring the developers who developed the apps would have been $2.6 million, whereas the cost of running the contest was just $50,000. With spending on e-government initiatives in the US this year expected to top $7 billion, it is clear that all avenues should be pursued to reduce the costs. The use of wikis, blogs and social newtworks within and between government agencies offer real potential for the efficient sharing of information and hopefully reductions in the duplication of effort we see throughout our own public service.
I’m not hopeful that we will see many new Irish e-government initiatives being delivered over the coming months and years. The recent An Bord Snip Nua report highlights the need to rationalise the “1,300 staff working in ICT in the civil service at an estimated cost of €65m a year.” It also draws particular attention to the existing instruction from government to cut in half the €200m a year spent with external ICT suppliers.
Where will the investment in e-government come from where departments’ ICT budgets are being slashed. Disappointingly, the only specific recognition in the report that “e-government” investment can deliver cost-savings and efficiences is the recommendation for Revenue that “further use be made of IT for electronic payments and self assessments.” And there are very few other mentions of web and ICT-related recommendations.
On the other hand, the also recently published first Knowledge Society Strategy report places “eInclusion, eGovernment, the role of ICT in all stages of education, eHealth and Citizenship” at the heart of a knowledge society. Furthermore the report suggests that “eGovernment will lower the cost and increase the productivity of public services” and that “eInclusiveness is a key requirement for bringing the wider public into the Smart Economy and raising Ireland’s international profile as a technologically sophisticated nation.” And when it comes to citizen participation, the report claims that “significant Government effort is underway to ensure social inclusion and active citizen participation in topical and political issues.”
While this report is encouraging in its recognition of the importance of investment in e-government, it is evidence of the continued investment that we all await.