Dáil Éireann - Volume 653 - 29 April, 2008
Private Members’ Business. - e-Government Services: Motion
Deputy Simon Coveney Deputy Simon Coveney
Deputy Simon Coveney: I move:
That Dáil Éireann, noting the findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the Government’s e-Government strategy, which while recognising some notable successes, found that:
out of a total of 161 projects, only 74 were fully operational six months after their deadline for completion;
the cost, at €420 million, was 20% over budget; and
projects on average took 25% longer to complete than planned;
noting the possibilities offered by an efficient system of e-Government services, especially in terms of efficiencies, cost savings, ease of consumer access, transparency, and improving computer literacy;
acknowledging the role that e-Government can play in reforming public sector practices in order to shape systems and processes around user needs;
noting the results of a recent survey which indicated that 78% of people want improved access to Government through IT;
acknowledging that on-line Government services should exist as a complement to, and not as a replacement of, traditional face-to-face and phone-based services; and
noting the fact that no formal e-Government strategy has been in place since early 2006;
calls on the Government to:
mandate the information society policy unit of the Department of the Taoiseach to consult on e-Government with the Comptroller and Auditor General, international experts with experience of implementing successful and innovative e-Government services in other countries, as well as representatives of the successful e-Government projects to date, especially motor tax on-line and Revenue on-line;
require that based on this consultation the ISPU produce within six months an action plan on the achievement of a comprehensive system of e-Government within two years;
require that this plan include detailed proposals for the establishment within two years of:
a properly-functioning central access point to all Government services on-line;
a unified secure on-line digital identity system for users which can be used to access all Government services;
a unified secure on-line payments system for on-line transactions;
 on-line systems of application for passports, driving licences, haulage licences, student grants and housing grants, e-tenders, planning permission and planning objections, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates and additions to the electoral register;
a system of on-line payments of court fines and commercial rates;
public transport real time information on-line; and
an integrated health services portal, including access for medical professionals to patient records;
require that this action plan also consider the viability of a number of innovative possibilities for e-Government, including:
m-Government, or the use of text messaging and mobile phone-based web services for access to Government services;
the use of digital TV for interactive Government services;
the cost savings provided by the use of on-line tools and software instead of expensive consultants; and
collaborations with private sector on-line initiatives, such as the use of on-line banking passwords for e-Government services;
require that this action plan also include:
a template for a report that all individual e-Government projects must publish, including the name of the person with ultimate responsibility for implementing the project, a clear and measurable objective, a detailed budget and a system of measurable deadlines;
a system of annual reporting on the overall e-Government project, including assessment of benefits, user satisfaction levels, international comparisons and hearings before the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; and
consideration of issues surrounding cross-departmental projects, funding issues and the role e-Government can play in reshaping public sector systems and processes around user needs;
establish a rigorous code of practice governing the treatment of sensitive personal data by public sector organisations, including:
a restriction on carrying databases of personal data on mobile devices such as laptops, Blackberrys and memory keys;
a restriction on sending databases of personal data in the post; and
six-monthly review of all encryption and security software procedures.
I propose to share my time with Deputies McHugh, Varadkar and Clune.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Deputy Simon Coveney Deputy Simon Coveney
 Deputy Simon Coveney: I am glad to have the opportunity to bring this motion before the House. It is the second motion relating to the information society that Fine Gael has introduced in Private Members’ time in the space of four months. That speaks for itself and shows our concern at the Government’s lack of priority, in particular regarding the telecommunications infrastructure in Ireland, and the Government’s attitude to the potential for e-Government.
In early 1999, the Government launched an action plan to progress the creation of an information society in Ireland. The big idea was to plan for, fund and implement a strategy that would dramatically increase computer usage and information technology generally among the general public and private businesses in a way that would be safe and cost effective on-line. Public and Government services would be provided primarily on-line, to improve ease of access and to allow for interaction between service providers in local authorities and Departments and the public in a way that would utilise modern technology to increase efficiency and drive down costs.
The first Government series of actions on e-Government was for the period from 1999 to 2001 and it aimed at developing an adequate telecommunications infrastructure, that is, the national availability of broadband, as well as developing services on-line. That first attempt by the Government to develop Ireland’s capacity for e-governance was quickly followed by a new strategy called New Connections, launched in March 2002, to cover the period from then until 2005. New Connections was to build on the first action plan and to develop a more ambitious strategy for delivering services on-line to the public and to facilitate inter-agency and interdepartmental work on-line.
The year 2005 came and went and the time period for New Connections ended, yet we have had no follow-up plan or strategy, or even an internal evaluation of the previous strategy. The Comptroller and Auditor General was right to call it as it is when he said:
The momentum towards developing e-Government that was evident in the early years of the decade appears to have faded somewhat. This is evident in the absence of a formal e-Government strategy since the beginning of 2006.
Two years later we are still waiting, although there are some signs that something is coming down the tracks.
The motion by Fine Gael is aimed at refocusing minds on what can be achieved through a new, ambitious e-Government programme and a plan of action. During Question Time this afternoon, the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, announced that a new strategy for e-Government would be launched by the end of July. I welcome that and it shows this motion is timely. I hope that it will influence the attitude towards that new strategy. However, what is needed in preparation for the new strategy is an honest assessment of our performance on e-Government strategies to date, a recognition of what has worked and what has not worked, what represents value for money and what does not. In other words, we need to learn from mistakes made in the past, some of which were very expensive indeed.
Unfortunately, from what I have heard this afternoon, I have real concerns about whether the Government, in particular the Department of the Taoiseach, accepts valid criticisms of its own performance in e-Government projects to date. When commenting on the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on e-Government, the Minister of State said: “The report acknowledges that there have been many successful projects which, when compared with other countries, points to Ireland being exceptional in the high level of success that has been achieved.” This statement could hardly be further from the truth, and points to a false assessment of our performance on e-Government to date. The facts are quite clear.
 The Comptroller and Auditor General acknowledged, as does Fine Gael, that there were some successful projects, which need to be recognised and built upon. However, its overall assessment was very critical. Among its key findings are the following. Out of a total of 161 projects included in the e-Government strategy, only 74 were completed and are fully live as planned, 44 were partly implemented, 23 were abandoned entirely — I will come back to that in a minute — and 20 were labelled “status not known”. That is some leadership. According to figures supplied by implementing Departments, there was on average a 25% time overrun in projects, while projects ran an average of 20% over budget. The total cost of the strategy to the taxpayer is officially €420 million, but that is not the whole cost of the strategy. Many of the internal staffing costs for putting together e-Government strategies within Departments are not factored into the overall cost.
The flagship project of the e-Government plan is the creation of a public service broker. In normal English, this is a one-stop shop where people can log on to www.reachservices.ie and they should be able to access all Government services on-line. It was estimated that this project would cost €14 million, but to date it has cost €37 million and the ongoing cost of running it is €15 million per annum. The annual cost is more expensive than the total estimated cost in the first place. It is clear from the reports that analysed the performance of the public service broker that it is not achieving what it set out to achieve. It has some positive aspects to it, but overall it has not achieved the ambitious targets set for it.
One central site in the UK, www.direct.gov.uk allows access to an enormous series of public services which are available on-line. This site highlights the difference in performance between what has been set up in that country and what has been set up here. Applications can be made on-line for student grants and passports, one can text weather forecasts to mobile phones and citizens can report a pothole or faulty street light to a local authority and expect a response within a set timeframe. There is a vast array of health services available on-line. People can join sports clubs through a centralised facility on-line, they can report a crime, join the police, apply for a renewable energy grant, register to vote, apply for planning permission or submit a planning objection. These are the basic things that people want to do in the same way they can book their flight on the Internet. They want to be able to interact with local government and national Government in getting information and paying for services without having to travel into offices to answer questions and fill out forms.
We were supposed to have a national health portal to provide information and application forms on-line. The Minister of State said that a number of projects were abandoned as it was cost effective not to move ahead and spend money on them. However, we spent €2 million on the national health portal and then abandoned it. We also abandoned a portal for driving licence applications, passport applications, haulage licence applications and social welfare projects that looked promising at the beginning. The list goes on.
By international standards, our performance has been very poor. The OECD yesterday joined a long list of international bodies which have criticised our performance. It pointed out that less than half of the flagship projects contained in the e-Government strategy have been implemented in full and that Ireland ranks 17th out of the EU 27 for availability of basic Government services on-line. The European Commission recently labelled our performance as stagnated and consistently places us towards the bottom of its league tables. Most recently, it placed us 11th out of the EU 15 for the availability of basic services on-line.
This is poor performance despite the fact that the percentage of Ireland’s GDP that is spent on public sector IT projects is high by international standards. Research by Kablenet found that out of 13 leading EU countries, only Sweden, Denmark, the UK and France spend a higher  percentage of GDP on public sector IT projects than Ireland. So in relative terms, we are spending a lot but are not getting the results. It is a familiar story in respect of the big ideas that come from Government, be they decentralisation, the national development plan, the national spatial strategy, the roll-out of our telecommunications infrastructure or the roll-out of e-Government services. There is a big spend when there is plenty of money but the results are not too impressive. Even The Economist intelligence unit ranks Ireland 21st out of 69 in terms of e-readiness. This is a much broader survey that does not just measure e-governance. Yet the Minister of State continues to insist that Ireland rates well compared to our competitors in the EU and globally.
I was interested in the Government’s description today of the information society in Ireland as “a process of evolution”. This suggests that it needs to be allowed to develop over time and that we need to be patient, that it is almost like a young clumsy animal that is maturing and developing co-ordination by itself. We are the people who need to give leadership and force the pace on this issue. We obviously cannot see into the future in terms of what advances in technology and electronic communications will make possible in the future. However, we know enough to know what kind of information society we need to create in Ireland to keep us competitive and maximise the benefit and dividend that we as a country can get from using technology to its maximum.
Fine Gael sees our telecommunications infrastructure as being as important as road or rail infrastructure in the future. It is no coincidence that this is the second Private Members’ motion dealing with this area in less than four months. While Ireland stutters to make progress on creating an information society, other countries are moving ahead with innovative ways of providing government services through technology. In countries like Singapore and Dubai, the early existence of a secure electronic payments system and digital identity system has enabled citizens to conduct almost all of their dealings with government on-line.
In Scandinavia, governments are considering using on-line banking passwords as a way of authenticating users of public services. In the US, a collaboration between government and private sectors has created a website called moving.com which allows users to conduct all transactions associated with moving house, from buying boxes to changing their account with the electricity company, via one website. The local government administration in the District of Columbia in the US uses Google software and tools to save information, thus eliminating the need for expensive consultants to try to put something in place. In India, a pilot project for half a million people uses mobile phones as a means of checking identities in paying pensions and unemployment benefits. This is what is happening outside Ireland. Yet there is a feeling of stagnation in Ireland and we simply are not prioritising this issue as we did ten years ago.
Ireland has fallen behind its competitors within the EU and globally. This is simply not acceptable if we aspire to be the country about which we constantly talk, namely, a competitive destination for companies to come and do business in and in which research and development and innovation can take place so that we can ensure that young people who are ambitious and educated can get the kind of jobs and wage packages they want in the future.
If the economy is to address competitiveness problems around cost and capacity issues relating to telecommunications, we must prioritise these issues. This motion deals primarily with three different categories of priorities. The first relates to our broadband infrastructure and next generation access. I will not go into that in any detail because I am like a broken record in this House trying to get the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to take next generation broadband access seriously. The second priority, which is the main focus of this motion, is trying to maximise the availability of services on-line to the public and to ensure that Departments can interact with each other on-line, particularly now that  decentralisation is moving civil servants further and further apart, so we can harness technology to reduce costs and increase access to services. The third priority in this motion, which is very important considering what has happened recently in the private and public sectors, is to ensure that we have secure protection and treatment of sensitive data for the public when it hands it over.
This motion is an honest assessment of our failures and successes in the past and calls on the Government to give leadership and re-prioritise this issue to move it ahead. We want to work with the Minister of State on this issue. I am not interested in having a political scolding session here on the wastage of the past ten years in terms of e-Government. I am interested in the next ten years. This is why the vast bulk of my motion looks to the future, what needs to be done and international best practice so that we can factor that into our new strategy, which is to be launched this summer. I encourage the Minister of State to work with us so that we can vote together tomorrow night on an ambitious motion that sets down clear targets so that the Minister of State can convince us that he is taking our concerns and priorities seriously in terms of the direction Ireland needs to go.
Deputy Joe McHugh Deputy Joe McHugh
Deputy Joe McHugh: I thank Deputy Coveney for moving this timely motion. It is a statement of intent from this side of the House that not only do we need to be competitive on the international stage by introducing next generation information communications technologies, but we need do so within the public sector if we are to be competitive on the international stage.
It is a timely motion in light of the report from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the report from the OECD, which was published this week. I have read transcripts from the OECD report. If one really reads between the lines, it reveals a fairly major indictment of opportunities missed and strategies that could have been implemented but which the Government failed to do in the past ten years. Naturally, the OECD report is not a political document but if one reads between the lines, one can see that it is in the guise of a lead balloon presented to the Government table by an OECD fork-lift driver. This is how subtly it is done and brought to the public realm by the OECD, but it is a serious document that should be read very closely and its constructive criticisms implemented as a matter of form.
In respect of missed opportunities, the bedrock of any democracy relates to the freedom of information — information that citizens can access on an individual or collective basis in respect of proper transparent democracy. In 2003, that opportunity was missed. I debated at length, along with my colleagues in the Seanad, the difficulties that would develop as a result of the stringent locking of horns in respect of not allowing proper transparent information to get out into the public realm. That opportunity was lost when it could have been utilised through the mechanism of information technology and people could have accessed information through their own computers where they had access to broadband or through their one-stop-shops. That major opportunity was lost.
The issue of State agencies was also cited in the OECD report. A plethora of State agencies work very well individually but there is a dearth of information in terms of knowing what other agencies are doing and what their own mappings are in terms of progress and their core objectives and aims. There is an overlap and duplication. Many State agencies are tripping over one another because there is a duplication of their core aims and objectives. That could have been avoided if agencies were able to access what the other agencies were doing. That could have been done through e-Government. That was mooted in many of the proposals and, as Deputy Coveney mentioned, 161 pilot projects were to be implemented but opportunities were missed in that regard.
 The fragmentation of agencies can be reflected in our day-to-day experience as politicians. The Minister is aware we are tripping over one another, so to speak, in terms of trying to get out information to the public. We cannot simply criticise the State agencies. We, as politicians, be it county councillors, urban councillors, TDs, Senators or Ministers, are all doing the same work because the members of the public continue to come to us to access information that they could have readily available in their county council office or in a one-stop-shop in the form of an electronic information system. That is the reason we bombard Departments with the same letters and people approach different political parties and politicians.
While it probably cannot be measured, I believe we as TDs are doing more work today on the basis of the information overload we receive from different avenues, be it the Internet, text, mobile and our constituency offices that we have increasingly made more accessible to the public. The fact that our workload has increased in the past ten years is an example of opportunities being missed in terms of information not reaching the public. E-Government would have provided a solution in that respect.
A simple way of addressing this issue, to which Deputy Coveney referred, is that a PPS number could have been used in terms of using one’s vote, whereby person on reaching the age of 18 would have become electronically eligible to vote. They could check on the Internet or in their county council office whether they were registered to vote. We would not then have the mess we do with many of the electoral registers in the run up to county council and general elections. That was an opportunity missed. However, we always go wide of the mark in the introduction of major projects such as PPARS and electronic voting. They were the major ambitious visionary projects but we missed the practical common sense steps.
Regarding the 360,000 people employed throughout our public service, I hear calls by the incoming Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, for increased productivity, enhanced performance and the operation of services on an integrated basis. If I recall correctly, a gentleman on this side of the House, Deputy Richard Bruton, has talked about that in the form of benchmarking for the past five years. Our party was seriously criticised for that five years ago. However, that was the time to do this. It was not done five years ago or ten years ago. However, as Deputy Coveney said, we are not here to say what was not done and what opportunities were missed but to propose that it is still timely to do this.
In the north-western, cross-Border area, a collection of bodies comprising Donegal County Council, Derry City Council, the HSE, the Department of Social and Family Affairs and FÁS worked on a pilot mechanism. It not only involved the integration of services for the benefit of the public but a project that would operate on a cross-Border basis. Some €3 million was spent on that project, but it has still not been implemented. It is still timely to ensure that projects such as that one are implemented. They will benefit citizens and enhance customer relations between State agencies, Government and our citizens.
Deputy Leo Varadkar Deputy Leo Varadkar
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I commend Deputy Coveney on tabling this motion. It is not a sexy one and probably will not generate a huge amount of media interest but, nonetheless, it is important. It is important for our economy, future competitiveness and if we are serious about making Ireland a world leader in technology and economic competitiveness.
Regarding the Government’s e-programme to date, as Deputy Coveney mentioned, there were 161 pilot projects, of which only 74 were delivered on time and 20% of them were over budget. There were a few disastrous projects such as PPARS and e-voting. It is important to realise this is not so much a failure of policy or technology but one of oversight. It is easy to criticise and concentrate on failures such as that of PPARS, which was seen to be a disaster, and the e-voting project, which did not work out, but the risk of doing so is for us to be afraid or unprepared to press ahead with e-Government. There may be a temptation politically to  stay away from that area for a while. However, I urge the Government not to do that. It should build on some of the successes such as the Revenue on-line service and e-tenders and push ahead with the e-Government agenda. It should take the advice given in the OECD report yesterday, which made two valid recommendations on e-Government. It stated that budget frameworks are needed to facilitate prioritisation and reallocation of spending. It also states that a renewed emphasis is needed on the role of IT and e-Government in strengthening information and sharing an integrated service delivery. It also states another valid point, namely, that fragmentation of responsibility for different elements of e-Government has meant that the full potential of ICT has not been realised by public sector organisations for citizens. That is a key point. It is not the concept that has failed but the oversight of it.
I will refer to some real life examples. As one who has spent most of the past few years working in the health service, when we talk about IT in the health service, we tend to think of PPARS, which unfortunately did not work out. However, many other systems have not been tried but should be. If a patient from Cork presents in an accident and emergency department in Blanchardstown hospital, a doctor cannot access his or her records from his or her GP in Cork or the hospital he or she attended in Cork. If a patient attends the National Maternity Hospital and a doctor is concerned that he or she may be anaemic and even though he or she may have had a blood test in Beaumont Hospital yesterday, the doctor cannot get access to that test result because none of the computers in the hospitals talks to each other, so to speak. GP surgeries, which are quite advanced in IT compared with many other countries, are poorly interlinked with hospital services.
Life and death issues are involved in this sector. For example, a doctor who treats a person who presents in a casualty department, having had an X-ray in another casualty department, cannot check that X-ray. However, the technology exists to do that. It is called PAX. It enables one to go on-line and check an X-ray that was taken in another hospital at an earlier date. It is a shame that we do not have that technology here.
In America, whose health service we often criticise, doctors can access patients’ ECG records. They carry around a small disc which contains their medical information, including their ECG record. A person who has had a heart attack has a different ECG and if that person presents with chest pain and a doctor carries out an ECG on him or her, which involves the attaching of electrodes on the heart, the doctor does not know whether those changes are new or old without seeing the patient’s old ECG record, which can take several days. Therefore, the doctor does not know whether there is a need to intervene. These are simple life-saving measures that can be taken, if the will exists to drive such advances. We need to talk about the real benefits for people in advancing to the next stages in the IT society.
I produced a Fine Gael discussion paper, entitled Service First, a few weeks ago. We carried out a survey of 100 or more Government offices. Among key findings of that survey were the fact that less than half of Government offices that serve the public are open 39 hours a week and only 10% are open at the weekend or even of an evening. That is a great shame.
Perhaps one of the best ways we can make services more available to people is by putting them on-line. As Deputy Coveney mentioned, there are many obvious ways that can be done. In the case of student grants, there is not a student in the country who does not have an e-mail address or web access and students should be able to apply for their student grant on-line.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Absolutely.
Deputy Leo Varadkar Deputy Leo Varadkar
Deputy Leo Varadkar: It is not that difficult. Such a programme could be easily introduced. One of the interns in one of our offices could probably design that programme.
 The same principle applies to planning observations. Living in north Dublin in a rapidly developing constituency, planning is my number one local issue. I have to go through the rigamarole on every single occasion of printing a letter to send to the authority. I do everything by e-mail. The only time I have to print a letter is when I need to submit a planning observation and fill in a cheque for the fee. That procedure belongs to a different century. I should be able to e-mail the submission and pay the fee by credit card or by account, but I cannot. There is no good reason that is the case. That is the procedure in place on the small level of the process. However, on the bigger level, there is no reason one cannot submit planning applications on-line. On Fingal County Council website one can examine in detail all planning applications, drawings, photo montages and check every single aspect of that planning application, but an application cannot be submitted on-line. An applicant has to print a hard copy of an application, complete it and submit it to the council and then give in a disc with the details on it. These practices would make one demented. In many ways local authorities are introducing de facto e-Government in the absence of the legislative framework to do it de jure. That is a real shame. We must begin to reflect modern lifestyles in that regard.
I travel a lot overseas and when I visit countries such as Denmark, Norway, Singapore and the Netherlands, I feel like I am in a modern country but when I come back to Ireland, I do not feel like I am in a modern country anymore. I feel I am in a country that wanted to be modern ten years ago or was modern then but which has become very complacent. Our wealth and the fact that we had a reasonably good economy until recently has meant that we allowed ourselves to fall behind and become very arrogant.
As a country, we should be aiming to be number one again. We should be aiming to be ahead of the curve and not just at the EU average. We should aspire to be the most competitive country in the world, the country that spends the most on information technology and research and development and to be the world leader. That is why this motion is important. We want Ireland to be a technology hub, a silicone island, and that means putting to the fore Government policy issues such as e-Government, e-commerce, the transition to e-payments, the roll-out of fibre optics and investment in information technology at all levels of education, not just in the computer rooms in schools. That is why I am glad to support this motion and commend it to the House.
Deputy Deirdre Clune Deputy Deirdre Clune
Deputy Deirdre Clune: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this very important motion. As Deputy Coveney said, this is the second time in the past few months that we have debated this issue. Previously we dealt with telecommunications and the lack of progress in that arena.
This motion focuses on e-Government and refers in particular to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s recent report. It also outlines ways in which we can and should improve e-Government. Published in February of this year, the UN e-Government survey for 2008, entitled From e-Government to Connected Governance, argues that citizens, communities and the private sector are clients of Government and they “demand top performance, efficiency, proper accountability and public trust, and a renewed focus on delivering better service and results”.
It further adds:
E-government can contribute significantly to the process of transformation of the government towards a leaner, more cost-effective government. It can facilitate communication and improve the coordination of authorities at different tiers of government, within organizations and even at the departmental level. Further, e-government can enhance the speed and  efficiency of operations by streamlining processes, lowering costs, improving research capabilities and improving documentation and record-keeping.
We all agree with those sentiments and instinctively know that the above are the potential benefits of a fully-implemented e-Government strategy. The same report ranked Ireland 19th overall, behind countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the United States, France and the United Kingdom. That is not where we want to be and it is not a place for a country which is pitching itself as a knowledge-based economy that aims to compete on a global stage.
The report on e-Government from the Comptroller and Auditor General focused on the Government’s ambitions to develop an information society, as initially announced in January 1999. At that time, the Government set out its plan to develop an information society. It set out a series of actions and initiatives to be undertaken over a three year period, up to 2001. The Government followed from that with the publication of New Connections, a plan spanning 2002 to 2005. It was ambitious in its target that all on-line services capable of delivery would be available by 2005. When the report was produced in 2002 nobody believed that this could be achieved.
The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report shines a glaring spotlight on the shortfalls of the strategy, which have been mentioned by previous speakers. Of the projects that were approved, just less than half were delivered. Only 44% of projects were partially delivered, while others were totally abandoned. Deputies referred to the cost overruns of approximately 20% and the time overruns of approximately 25%.
Mention has been made of some of the positives in the e-Government project and I certainly acknowledge the success of the Revenue on-line service. The motor tax project is also a success, as are some of the projects undertaken by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, we also have the stories of PPARS, electronic voting and the national health portal which was abandoned. One cannot apply for a driving licence or a passport on-line. The public service broker, to which the Comptroller and Auditor General devoted much attention, was supposed to be one single access point for all Government services. It was to be a one-stop shop for Government, local authority and health services. However, the project’s infeasibility should have been realised from an early stage. The planning was weak and the implementation was slow and costly. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported that the broker is now up and running but is very disappointing because the services it can deliver are limited.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General provides more evidence of how Government projects have led to waste and overspending with little or no improvement in services to the public. What is worrying is the criticism by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the administration of e-Government projects. He called for improved management processes and argued:
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 highlights inadequacies and inefficiencies in the Government’s implementation of its e-Government strategy. I urge the Government to continue with its e-Government strategy. I hope it has not shied away from its implementation. We have heard nothing since 2006 about e-Government targets or the Government’s proposals to implement the strategy. It is very important for a country that wants to move forward, to encourage its citizens to avail of broadband services, to become e-efficient and to connect through information technology to have a strong and effective e-Government strategy. Without such a strategy and a determination to  implement it, we will not move forward and realise our ambitions. I urge the Government to continue to set targets and to achieve those targets. It is essential for a small island nation on the periphery of Europe to have a strong strategy and definite implementation targets.
Deputy Tom Kitt Deputy Tom Kitt
Deputy Tom Kitt: I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
acknowledges that technology is a potent tool to be used in almost any field of activity, providing opportunities for innovation and performance improvement;
accepts that because technology is changing rapidly, increased functionality will continue to create possibilities for innovation, many of which can be ground-breaking and even revolutionary;
recognises that performance improvement is the key driver for the use of technology in service delivery, internal administration and otherwise in the creation of mutually beneficial social, cultural, commercial, or other networks;
accepts that, where performance improvement in the context of modernisation is the desired goal, organisations have to manage the other significant contextual change requirements for the people, processes and the cultures of organisations;
welcomes the significant successes in the development of on-line public services with annual savings of over €86 million for just 21 of the e-Government projects and notes that this will rise as more services are developed;
welcomes the increased availability of public service information through services like citizens information on-line and the Basis website;
welcomes the streamlining of compliance procedures and the reduction of administrative burdens for organisations and individuals using technology, with facilities such as Revenue on-line and motor tax on-line;
welcomes the administrative process improvements and efficiencies gained in projects like the e-Cabinet system;
welcomes the benefits gained from programmes like the civil registration modernisation programme, which has yielded benefits in other areas like the processing of child benefits;
welcomes the increased capacity in organisations resulting from the use of technology with, for example, the Revenue Commissioners doubling the number of taxpayers they handle with no additional staff and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food freeing up clerical staff for redeployment on the Garda PULSE system;
notes that the OECD report published on 28 April 2008 acknowledges that e-Government should support modernisation and that there should be a greater emphasis on performance as a driver;
notes that REACH has been taken over by the Department of Finance, arising from the recent review of its activities;
 notes that some public service organisations have yet to fully exploit the potential of technology and that the new arrangements in place within the Department of Finance will address this;
notes that a peer review process has been initiated by the Department of Finance to ensure that major projects are being planned and managed to a high standard and in keeping with recognised good practice;
accepts that, in relation to electronic identity processing, the priority must be the protection of identity and other personal information and that any system introduced must meet this requirement, and notes that as recommended by the review of Reach, the Department of Finance is researching the provision of central identity systems with a view to the provision of a robust authentication system to Departments and agencies that provide services on-line;
welcomes the recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the OECD and the Reach review for a different approach to the exploitation of technology in Government;
looks forward to the implementation of those recommendations by the relevant Departments, having regard to the need to deploy and use technology as a response to a need for improved performance; and
looks forward to the publication in July of a new action plan that will build on the successes to date and will take account of the recommendations of the OECD and Comptroller and Auditor General reports, accepting that prudent use of technology also involves considerable changes for the people, processes and the cultures of public service organisations.
I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Mary Wallace, and Deputy Thomas Byrne.
I strongly welcome the motion tabled by Deputy Coveney and his Fine Gael colleagues. I also accept Deputy Coveney’s stated position that he is not interested in trading insults in the context of this Private Member’s debate. I have witnessed many Private Member’s debates in this Chamber and they can become rather heated. That is parliamentary democracy at work and it may happen yet in the course of this debate tonight or tomorrow. If it happens, so be it, but this situation is very different because there are many good ideas in this motion.
I do not mind informing the House that I discussed the content of Deputy Coveney’s motion with him today with a view to determining whether we could reach common ground. We have not done so, but I wish to put down that marker. If we find common ground, that will be great and we will work hard again tomorrow in an effort to do so. That is my approach.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: It would be welcome if, as with Deputy Coveney’s motion, the Minister of State could not only agree to a consensus but then implement it. That would be even better.
Deputy Tom Kitt Deputy Tom Kitt
Deputy Tom Kitt: The Deputy is correct. My Department is faced with preparing a new action plan following the OECD and Comptroller and Auditor General reports. I am a member of Government who is committed to bringing about the necessary changes. When an Opposition Deputy has constructive ideas it is my duty to examine them. We have been talking and we will see how we get on tomorrow.
 This is a sound parliamentary initiative. I would like to highlight, as I did earlier during exchanges with Deputy Quinn’s party colleague at Question Time, positive e-Government initiatives. Many fantastic people work hard in Departments on e-Government. Parts of the system are not working and the ongoing peer review by the Department of Finance over the past two years is a good mechanism to ensure better performance all round. The OECD report presents a fantastic opportunity to all of us to move on. We are preparing an action plan and will have it ready in July
I pay tribute to the many public servants who have worked in the public interest to break new ground and disrupt the cultures and, in some cases, the traditions of their organisations to modernise their services and to make it easier for the people they serve on the front line obtain the level of service they expect and to which they are entitled as citizens. Simply counting the things that can be easily counted, focussing on the numbers and taking a pedantic view of what is very often a nebulous phenomenon, thereby being obsessed with the empirical while ignoring the aesthetic, can give a totally misleading picture. It can also distort the results and, ultimately, lead to unsound decisions. In that regard, I refer to comments by the Comptroller and Auditor General at the Committee of Public Accounts hearing last month when he acknowledged the many successes in e-Government and that he did not want to be negative.
It is worth reflecting on the progress of e-Government over this decade, how it has evolved and how it has changed in significance and importance. In Ireland, as elsewhere , there was a strong momentum towards the creation of an information society, which was building during the 1990s as the Internet emerged and as universal access to information brought us into this information age. It was recognised, however, quite a number of people were in danger of being left behind on the wrong side of the digital divide if they were not encouraged or facilitated to gain access. It was also recognised that a key driver of access was content, something that would give an incentive to people to get on-line. One obvious source of content for governments tackling the digital divide is their own public services. In Ireland we promoted e-Government, primarily to encourage participation in and engagement with the information society by as many people as possible.
The modernisation process has been under way since 1994, having been initiated by the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and while it envisaged the use of technology where appropriate, it did not envisage e-Government as an end in itself. In the early part of this decade the focus of those promoting e-Government was mainly to create more opportunities for access and engagement so that more people would have a good reason to get involved and be participants in the emerging information society. That initial thrust started to change as experience showed that to simply put services on-line without a reason, other than simply to have them on-line, was, ultimately, wasteful or at least short-sighted. Many countries found that they had services on-line that were not being used and the cost of putting them on-line was not justified by the level of use.
Public administration involves many activities in addition to service delivery. At a high level, there are two primary activities: policy making and policy implementation. However, behind them, there are many activities in managing the service delivery process, in internal administration and in policy making, areas where people are performing to achieve results and outcomes. In all these activities there is scope to innovate using technology. E-Government, therefore, has to be seen in a different light as an enabler of change, modernisation and transformation but with a purpose to improve performance for better outcomes and impacts. In that respect it is very much in harmony with the modernisation process.
 In Ireland, as elsewhere, the emphasis has shifted to using technology to enhance performance. While that includes service delivery, it also includes the other aspects of the work of governments I mentioned. However, even taking service delivery and creating a new channel of access, while welcome, does not go far enough. We also need to examine how technology can improve the nature and operation of the relationships between citizens and the many parts of the public service with which they have to interact. We have to re-examine why we do what we do and how we do it and to consider it in a wider context. We must consider where others may address aspects of the same situation or predicament and see can the tools at our disposal change things for the better.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the coverage of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report in some media was the treatment of projects deemed to be over budget, delayed or abandoned altogether. It is important that we are clear about the tremendous success we have witnessed in e-Government. A long list of projects have delivered what they were supposed to and, in some cases, even more. The Government virtual private network ensured substantial savings of €25 million per annum. The Revenue on-line service, about which everybody is talking, has delivered estimated savings of €49 million, in addition to the increased capacity of Revenue to deal with twice as many taxpayers with the same number of staff. In the case of motor tax on-line, it is estimated at least 125,000 hours are saved annually. E-Cabinet is another example of the innovative use of technology to improve efficiency. It has streamlined processes across all Departments for the submission of papers to the Cabinet. The civil registration modernisation programme has achieved annual savings of approximately €7.6 million. Jobs Ireland at FÁS has facilitated an annual saving of approximately €1.9 million while the animal health computer system has yielded estimated annual savings of €13 million. I am glad my colleague, Deputy Mary Wallace, is present to contribute to the debate. These are a sample of the very impressive results from the prudent use of technology in contexts where there was a very tangible improvement in performance. There are many more stories like this and the number will increase as more public service agencies exploit the new and emerging technologies in what they do.
Some commentators have made great play of the assertions that there were cost overruns. It is important to bear in mind that many projects change in nature after work has commenced on them. This can arise for a number of reasons, including unexpected problems with design, the addition of new elements or a change in requirements or, as can often happen where new ground is being broken, unforeseen issues and obstacles that can add costs. While there are cost overruns, it is important to examine each case prior to jumping to adventurous conclusions or damning everybody. In many procurement situations the costs do not become apparent until the tender documents have been received and discussions and clarifications have been completed between the vendor and the purchaser. Quite often the revelation about the true cost can cause projects to be postponed or even abandoned when the estimated return in terms of benefits is weighed against the cost. It is prudent for project sponsors to conduct this exercise and it is madness to criticise those who take that approach. The alternative of “finishing because you’ve started” would be reckless in the extreme unless that was the least costly path to follow. In addition, of the 23 projects listed in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which covered the period up to 2005, many have proceeded while only a handful have been postponed or deferred altogether. In these latter cases, there were good reasons for the decisions that should be commended.
A number of people have latched on to the various benchmarking results that show where Ireland ranks relative to other countries. Ireland’s performance in the Capgemini benchmarking exercises conducted on behalf of the EU Commission has slipped from first in 2001  and 2002 to 17th in 2007. However, at the same time, Ireland’s grading by Capgemini improved from 68% in 2002 to 84% in 2006. This shows we are still progressing but others are coming from behind learning from the early movers and starting afresh in the light of our experience.
Deputy Simon Coveney Deputy Simon Coveney
Deputy Simon Coveney: The relative grading is the only relevant factor. We will have improvements.
Deputy Tom Kitt Deputy Tom Kitt
Deputy Tom Kitt: I will refer to the personal identity system in place in eastern Europe. A number of recent accession countries have a personal identity information system. The phenomenon of leapfrogging is quite common where technology is involved because of the rapid pace of change. One of the main reasons for our slower pace of progress has to do with our ability to process identity information. Countries that are performing well, many of which have come later to the e-Government space also have a tradition and legacy of national identity systems. The priority must be the protection of identity and other personal information to ensure a high degree of trust between public service organisations and the citizens using public services in their business or other activities. We are working hard on this issue. Any system introduced must meet this requirement if it is to be trusted by citizens and if it is to afford the kind of privacy protection people expect. This issue surfaced in the recent review of Reach and is currently being addressed by the Department of Finance.
There have been assertions in some quarters that the transfer of Reach to the Department of Finance is some sinister plot to kill off the project. Reach was originally an agency of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and was set up to promote the use of the personal public services number, PPSN, and the public services card, PSC. In 2000, it was mandated by Government to build a public services broker, PSB, which was a number of components working together, but not necessarily in the same place. It included some information repositories on public services for citizens and businesses, a client registration and authentication facility, a transaction management facility, an electronic payments facility and a data vault which was intended to hold and protect personal information on behalf of clients.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: In other words, totally overloaded.
Deputy Tom Kitt Deputy Tom Kitt
Deputy Tom Kitt: The information repositories have been in place for some time. Oasis, now called Citizens Information, was built by Comhairle and provides a comprehensive and much acclaimed information facility for citizen services. Basis, which provides information for business, was built by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
The registration-authentication system has also been constructed by Reach, in conjunction with the Department of Social and Family Affairs. However, this facility does not have the high level of authentication required for some public services as a result of our lack of a national identity system and it has been a key factor in our benchmarking performance in recent years. An electronic payments facility has been put in place by the local government computer services board and is being used by a number of Departments and agencies for the past five years. Reach has also developed an inter-agency messaging system as an infrastructure to link agencies with the broker and to link the various components of the broker together.
Last year, a review of Reach was undertaken and following that review it was decided by the Government to incorporate the REACH agency into the Department of Finance. The broker has not been abandoned; some components are well established and are being used by many organisations across the public service. However, there has been concern about the ongoing running costs of the broker and the Department of Finance is reviewing the situation, in light of currently available technologies, with a view to making it more cost effective. It is  important for people to recognise that technology is changing all the time in terms of cost and functionality.
The concept of the broker was devised eight years ago, or 24 Internet years ago. Since then, technology has moved at a rapid pace so it would be foolish in the extreme if we were not to take account of those developments, some of which can be quite revolutionary.
I have no doubt that some of the novel services we have seen come on stream will be old fashioned in a relatively short space of time. This is the nature of the world we live in and is reflected in the benchmarking exercises. We were an early leader in benchmarking and we appear to be slipping, but we are determined to move back up the ladder before too long. It is prudent that the broker is reviewed and continues to be reviewed to ensure the maximum benefit.
This debate is timely considering the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report and the OECD report. I thank Deputy Coveney for tabling this motion as it gives us a good opportunity to clarify the issues and to clear up some myths. We must not assume that the technologies available today are the same as those that prevailed eight or ten years ago and that the approach to e-Government should be more of the same, a continuation of the supply-led strategy outside the bigger context of modernisation and without regard to the need to maximise performance.
The world is moving on and new technologies are impacting on all sectors of life and on many activities. While there is no argument that we should be using them, it is important that we learn from what we have done, that we look closely at what the reports are saying and that our response takes full account of the context within which we are operating. We now know and accept that e-Government is not just about putting services on-line. We now know that the real challenge is to make government and the democratic processes more relevant in a world that is seeing changes on a global scale, from economic growth and migration to the new phenomenon of social networking over the Internet.
We also know that technology can enable profound changes in organisations. It is not simply a matter of putting this or that service on-line and the justification for the use of technology needs to be very clear. The modernisation process that has been ongoing in the public service in Ireland and which is comprehensively addressed in the OECD report has placed a new emphasis on performance and serving the citizen, on using technology as a tool to achieve. All organisations and individuals are performing for a purpose, to achieve objectives in the services they deliver, in their internal administration and in the way they play a part in the overall structure of government. It is clear there are many ways in which technology can be used. There are many opportunities to improve performance, to re-design processes and structures, where technology makes this a viable proposition. Therefore, in deciding on the future deployment of technology, these opportunities for improvement have to be the starting point.
It goes without saying that when new ground is being broken, when new concepts are being tried out and where new services are being built, there is an element of risk. There is a tradition of risk aversion in the public service, a tradition that can be an obstacle to taking leaps, yet it is a tradition which needs to change. Risk means an acceptance of the possibility of failure and a culture that permits risk, but it also means having a robust management capability, one that allows us to have a strong control, to permit experimentation and entrepreneurship and, above all, to learn from both success and failure.
One of the issues that has been raised both here and in the context of the OECD report is the question of central leadership. In that context, the role of the Department of the Taoiseach has been to provide strategic coherence in cross-departmental policy areas such economic and  social policy, social partnership or the information society. The Department has provided the space for agencies and Departments and other sectors to work together in the formulation of more comprehensive strategies. By working with the e-strategy group of Secretaries General and with other cross-departmental groups on the information society and e-Government, the Department has ensured that there is compatibility and agreement across the system.
However, I accept that the separation of e-Government and modernisation has been a problem and I accept that a new approach is now required. We need a new departure that sees e-Government or the use of technology in Government being used in response to a demand for better performance and more potent outcomes right across the public service. The precise governance arrangements, including funding, will now be addressed in light of the OECD recommendations and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, having due regard to the challenges that this will mean for the public service in Ireland.
I thank the Opposition for tabling this motion as it is a timely debate, especially in the context of the OECD report and the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, and as we are now formulating this action plan which is very critical. We have been seeking inputs from Departments and we are bringing coherence to this plan. We will see what we can do with regard to reaching agreement with the Opposition tomorrow. If that is not possible, this debate is still very useful.
Deputy Mary Wallace Deputy Mary Wallace
Deputy Mary Wallace: The successes of e-Government in this country have been well recognised and this is acknowledged by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Indeed, some of our e-Government services are recognised as world-leading. At the start of this decade, the Government, recognising the opportunities presented by newer technology, particularly Internet technologies, mandated all Government organisations to produce an e-Government strategy for their particular organisation. This mandate, combined with the information society fund, triggered a wide range of e-Government initiatives, many of which were spectacularly successful.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been extremely successful in this area and the Comptroller and Auditor General has recognised our success. This has led to better customer service, greater internal efficiency and more effective control. The Department provides a wide range of services through the Internet to farmers, fishermen, foresters and agri-food business. For a number of years the Department has also recognised and exploited mobile phone-based services. We are pleased to note that a growing number of our customers have seen the value and convenience of doing business through the Department’s electronic services and are signing up for these services.
E-Government in its fullest sense has facilitated the streamlining of our business processes and put us to the forefront among EU agriculture administrations. For example, we are at the very forefront in CAP payment delivery. Ireland delivers the vast majority of its direct CAP payments at the earliest dates allowable by the EU.
We have traceability of our animals that stands comparison with the very best in the world. We use web-based technology in our disease eradication programme to streamline and integrate the processes of the Department and those of the private veterinary practices. Almost 100% of private veterinary practices now interact electronically with the Department. This has led to significant efficiencies for both the Department and the private vets, as referred to by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt. It means that better disease information is available and animals can be cleared for sale more quickly.
In the area of forestry, the process is underpinned by technology from application through approval to electronic grant payments. We can now make premium payments earlier than ever.  Forestry companies can avail of on-line mapping facilities that assist them in accurately preparing planting applications and in avoiding applications for ineligible land. Likewise, in regard to fisheries, sales notes are captured directly on-line, leading to simpler administration for the Department and the industry.
In the area of CAP payments and agriculture exports, my Department has worked with the Revenue to integrate its processes, with the result that exporters need submit their information electronically only once. This information flows all the way through both the customs processes and the export refunds processes of my Department, through to electronic payment of export refunds.
E-Government practice worldwide has matured greatly, going from web-based provision of general information to the next level whereby customers can access their own information at a higher level and transact business via the Internet. While early initiatives were at the information provision end of the scale, some of the larger Government organisations progressed quickly to the top end of the scale, providing full transaction capability. In such cases, greater efficiency is being achieved where the public face of e-Government services are integrated into internal business processes. In this way, information that is provided can be checked to prevent customer errors. In many cases, information that has already been collected is reused so that the customer does not have to provide it again.
To this end, the Department has structured its information systems around a single view of the customer, a single view of the farm animal and a single view of the land. We will continue to seek out new opportunities to optimise our internal processes and our interactions with customers and with other Departments. This will enable us to improve customer services and reduce costs for both the Department and the customer.
Deputy Thomas Byrne Deputy Thomas Byrne
Deputy Thomas Byrne: The main problem I have with the Opposition motion is that although it alludes to “some notable successes” in the area of e-Government, it goes on to list only the shortcomings in this area. The reality is that we have had many successes in the area of e-Government. We need only look at the Oireachtas system where Members have access to a fantastic computer database which allows us to deal easily with constituents’ queries. I am confident this system would not be vulnerable in the same way as the Bank of Ireland system because the theft of laptop computers would not mean that the thief could gain access to the network on which the information is stored. As well as seeking improvements in e-Government services, the motion should also seek improvements on the part of businesses in regard to their computer security. Businesses should learn from the successes of the Government in this area. As a customer of Bank of Ireland in Drogheda, I have serious concerns about the theft of the laptops containing customer data.
Deputy Simon Coveney Deputy Simon Coveney
Deputy Simon Coveney: A total of 123 laptop computers have been stolen from Departments in the last two years. The Government must get its act together in regard to data protection.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Byrne should be allowed to speak without interruption.
Deputy Thomas Byrne Deputy Thomas Byrne
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I do not dispute that those thefts took place. The point, however, is what the thief is able to do with the information stored on the processing machine that he or she has stolen. In the case of the theft of the Bank of Ireland laptops, it seems that the thieves were able to access sensitive customer data. I heard the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Cullen, say in an interview on television recently that in the case of the Oireachtas system, information contained on any stolen computer equipment would be inaccessible without access to the network, which requires passwords and so on. Some businesses should learn  from the Government in this regard just as the Government does well to learn from business in other areas.
The Revenue on-line service is a fantastic and indisputable success story. The service is well advertised, drawing people’s attention to the welcome incentives the Revenue offers to those willing to file on-line, including an additional 14 days to do so. Many accountants now seem to regard this extended date as the target date for the filing of their returns on-line. The Revenue is estimated to have saved some €49 million on postage, printing and processing since 2004 because of the increasing use of its on-line service. Those savings are likely to continue to grow as greater numbers become aware of and avail of the service instead of making written returns and submissions.
As well as the ability to file tax returns on-line, there is a wealth of information available on the website. This may be the reason that many of us have noticed fewer queries about Revenue issues at our constituency clinics.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Deputy Byrne is exactly right. There has been a transformation in this regard. I no longer receive any queries about Revenue matters.
Deputy Thomas Byrne Deputy Thomas Byrne
Deputy Thomas Byrne: Almost everything can be processed on-line apart perhaps from certain complicated cases where one might have to write to the Revenue to plead one’s case. I am too young to know whether such pleas would be entertained. It is only right that all this information should be available to the public so that people do not have to come begging their public representative to be the intermediary in these matters.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Hear, hear.
Deputy Thomas Byrne Deputy Thomas Byrne
Deputy Thomas Byrne: That is not to say that we are not always available when people need our assistance. Constituents are always welcome at my clinics. The more, the merrier.
Deputy Simon Coveney Deputy Simon Coveney
Deputy Simon Coveney: Deputy Byrne had to get that on the record.
Deputy Thomas Byrne Deputy Thomas Byrne
Deputy Thomas Byrne: The motor tax on-line system is another efficient service, but more must be done to make people aware of it. There are often queues at my local motor tax office in Duleek in County Meath, as elsewhere in the State. We regularly hear clarion calls from certain quarters for additional local authority staff to process motor tax applications. Where additional staff are needed, they should be appointed. However, it is important that local authorities encourage more people to renew their motor tax on-line or by telephone.
The Fine Gael motion states that “on-line Government services should exist as a complement to, and not as a replacement of, traditional face-to-face and telephone-based services”. I agree with that, but if there is a choice in the future between a large face-to-face operation or a streamlined on-line operation, priority should be given to the latter where it is shown to work effectively. Before we call for increases in staff and a diversion of local authority resources from the provision of other services to customers, we should examine whether it is possible to increase the usage of the on-line motor tax service. Other improvements should be made to the service. For example, it should not be necessary for motor tax discs to be posted out to motorists. Instead, it should be possible to download them from the Internet. If such a system is good enough for Ryanair and Aer Lingus, it should be good enough for the local authorities when it comes to collecting motor tax.
The Minister of State is well aware that court proceedings are in train in regard to the new secondary school, Coláiste na hInse, in Laytown in my constituency. I will not discuss those proceedings. However, I do not know whether Members are aware that the recruitment of  teachers for that school has been done purely on an on-line basis by Meath VEC, which is a State agency, as also in the case of Ratoath College. This is a fantastic and welcome innovation. In the case of applicants for these posts, computer proficiency and the ability to interact fluently on-line are essential prerequisites for any teacher.
There have been other successes in the area of e-Government. As a solicitor, the Ceann Comhairle may be familiar with the Land Registry’s on-line service. Further improvements may be required to that system but it is a fantastic facility for solicitors throughout the State. They can check the registered owner of a property on-line, for example, and, if they have the expertise, can perform a mapping search to ascertain the mortgages registered against it. It is a significant step forward and an important resource for solicitors.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I propose to share time with Deputies Ferris and McManus.
An Ceann Comhairle An Ceann Comhairle
An Ceann Comhairle: Is it agreed that the three Deputies have ten minutes each? Agreed.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn Deputy Ruairí Quinn
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I very much welcome this motion. I commend the Fine Gael Party, particularly Deputy Coveney, on the comprehensive nature of the approach to the issue of e-Government. I confess it is not an area in which I would describe myself as technically competent but I am more than aware of the benefits that can be derived from its implementation. I also welcome the constructive response from the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Tom Kitt. I wish him and his colleague on the other side of the House success in arriving at some type of consensus. This House is often at its best when there is co-operation. There are many issues upon which we disagree but there are many others upon which there is a shared view. If we can secure consensus on these issues, it sends an important signal to society. One signal I would like to mention, in the absence of the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, is to stop referring to citizens as customers and to Departments as businesses. They are not businesses, they are unique and are not in competition. Citizens do not have a choice of supplier of public services and they should be treated as citizens with rights and given respect.
Departments should not be treated as businesses because they are not businesses. They are public service institutions which represent a distinct separate sector of our society. They complement businesses and facilitate their activities. Citizens complement the function of the marketplace but we do not have a market for agricultural services in the sense the Minister for State, Deputy Wallace, spoke about. One does not have the choice to go down the high street to go to another alternative business where one is treated as a customer. Let us not abuse ourselves about this point.
The only way to judge the Government’s attitude towards the electronic provision of services is the end result. The delivery of services to the public by electronic means can be cheaper, easier and, most importantly, more accessible to those who need them most. However, it can be much more than that. As a special report on this subject in The Economist on 12 February put it, e-Government means that “government not only puts its services on-line, but in doing so changes the way it works”. This is the critical point we want to make. A cultural transformation is associated with the transfer from paper to electronic transactions. Public services must be delivered for the public’s benefit. We should not lose sight of this fundamental rule. This means no more references to customers and businesses.
With more and more people working long hours and living far from their workplaces they simply do not have time to visit distant Government offices. Often these offices are open at hours most inconvenient for anyone who has a job. How many Departments or agencies have offices open on Saturdays? How many open during lunchtime? How many have telephones  that will be answered after 5 p.m. on a weekday or even during a weekday? One rings the buildings unit of the Department of Education and Science in Tullamore but no one has an answering service at his or her telephone number.
I can go on-line at any time of the day or night and manage my bank account, buy car insurance, buy just about any book or piece of music ever published, reserve a hotel room or a holiday in any country in the world, buy a plane ticket, reserve my seat and even check in for the flight before I arrive at the airport, but I cannot buy a new TV licence on-line, I can only renew an existing one. I cannot apply on-line for a passport, a driver’s licence or planning permission, or tender for Government business. I cannot apply for or use the majority of national or local government services on-line.
The Government seems to think that e-Government means making a form available on the Internet so citizens can save it the printing costs. In some cases, even this is not allowed. Why can one not obtain a passport application form on-line, even for a simple renewal? Thousands of hours each week are wasted by public servants transcribing information into computers that public service users would be only too happy to enter into their own computers given half a chance.
This is “Web 1.0” as some would put it. The rest of the on-line society has moved on to “Web 2.0” and the Government must move quickly if it is not to be left behind again. There are excellent examples of how public demand has created on-line public services where the Government has failed. I know of at least two websites showing extensive maps of bus routes in Dublin, neither of which is owned by Dublin Bus. Another website even shows the live position of the DART on a map of Dublin but it has nothing to do with Iarnród Éireann.
Notably good examples of excellent e-Government are in place although, unfortunately, they are few. Three worthy of particular mention are the Citizens Information Board, motor tax on-line and the Revenue Commissioners. We changed car within the past ten days and received our motor taxation certificate effortlessly and within hours rather than days. I compliment the people directly involved. If we can do that in this sector, why can we not do it in other sectors also? The three bodies I mentioned have something in common in that they provide the required information and services in a clear and simple manner. However, I am sad to state that overall the e-Government strategy has been a failure. Projects run over budget and over time as a matter of routine.
Many Government services could be provided easily and cheaply with ongoing cost savings by putting them on-line. Administration costs are reduced because properly validated data is put directly into the system. Processing time is greatly speeded up because there is no need to wait for postal deliveries or for forms to be transcribed. While e-Government is primarily about delivering a better service to the public, it can also increase efficiency.
A significant part of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report deals with failures in how e-Government projects to date have been run. At this point, there is no need to revisit them all, save to say that less than half were fully operational six months after their original deadline. Simple project management could increase this figure to what it should be. A lack of project management was what put paid to PPARS.
I state sincerely and in the constructive spirit of this dialogue that someone must be in charge. One individual must take overall responsibility for the project and then delegate onwards specific elements of responsibility as appropriate. If the Ministers are not seen to take responsibility they should not expect the public service and the Civil Service to step into the breach. We must have a culture of acceptance of responsibility which sadly we have not had on the Government side of the House during the past ten years.
 When confronted with failure and administrative breakdown, Ministers have not accepted political responsibility for something which ultimately is their responsibility, as we did on this side of the House when we were in government. If the Government does not lead by example it should not expect people in the public service working to it to step into the breach. Ultimately, if the public does not receive a measurably better service, the project has failed.
This motion also discusses the key matter of data security. As shown by answers to parliamentary questions I tabled earlier this year, the Government has been extremely lax in its approach to data security. Deputy Coveney referred to this. More than 100 data storage devices belonging to the State have been lost or stolen. None of them was encrypted. We have no idea what personal, private or confidential information about citizens was on them. The Labour Party supports the proposal to move towards more enhanced e-Government and if this is to be done new forms of securing the data must be part and parcel of the contract, not with the customer but with the citizen. The encryption of sensitive data must be a fundamental part of encouraging people to go on-line to share information in the sure knowledge that the information they share as citizens is properly respected and safely assured.
Deputy Martin Ferris Deputy Martin Ferris
Deputy Martin Ferris: The Government strategy to make public services more accessible through the use of modern technology is certainly laudable. However, as the motion points out, there have been notable failures in reaching the targets already set. Therefore, it would be desirable to have more accountability in implementing plans and to make the information more readily available.
Undoubtedly, there have been successes in facilitating access to parts of the public service. One that seems to be mentioned in particular is the motor tax office which facilitates people renewing their car tax on-line. This has allowed a great many people to save a lot of time through not having to spend hours in one of the offices. All of us have personal experience of how well this system works and it is to be commended.
The same system should be introduced in other areas such as passport applications and civil registration. While obvious safeguards must be in place to prevent identity theft and other fraud where a person might wrongfully apply for a passport or a birth certificate in someone else’s name, there are means of ensuring security and one ought to be able to do as much of the process as possible through a computer. There are other less sensitive areas such as planning, as referred to in the motion, where there appears little reason initial applications could not be conducted on-line. This would contribute to a saving of time and energy expended in waiting rooms and a dramatic reduction in queues as was the case at motor taxation offices. There is huge opportunity in this regard.
There are other areas that involve citizens less formally with the State. The websites for some public amenities are excellent. An example is the recent placing on-line of the 1911 census for Dublin which has enabled many people to access family records. It is planned that records for the entire country will be made available in the near future. The National Archives also plans to do likewise in respect of the 1901 census.
It is important that public service websites contain accurate and up-to-date information. In general, that is the case but there have been instances when, for example, on-line travel timetables have been wrong. This lessens people’s confidence in a facility especially when coming from a culture where previously they trusted other sources of information.
Some Department websites could do with improvement. While some are excellent others appear badly designed and it is often difficult to access the information one requires. This will not encourage people to use these websites. Perhaps, the best sites could be used as a template  for others. Public accessibility is only relevant if the public has access to computers in the first instance and if the Internet service available to them is adequate. The situation in this regard is improving but not perhaps as uniformly as it might.
There is a danger that in increasing the amount of public and other information primarily focused on by the Internet, a minority will be further excluded. This is of particular concern where PC ownership and Internet use is rare among certain socio-economic groups. This can be for economic reasons — although PC and Internet usage is probably no more expensive than household television or cable access — or more likely for education and other reasons.
People who leave school early and who have little interest in the written word are highly unlikely to display much interest in the Internet. It is important all schools offer computer courses and that all children are taught the value of the Internet otherwise it will become another barrier between us and those who believe they are not really a part of this society. Increased interaction with the State on-line will have implications for social exclusion in terms of those who have not been educated in the use of PCs and other instruments. Adult education courses in local resource centres offer a huge opening in this regard. The back to education scheme and the provision of education centres which offer courses on Internet access is playing an enormous role in areas where socio-economic deprivation prevails.
Most families do not have at least one member who is computer literate. Some 55% of households surveyed in 2006 had at least one personal computer. This increased to 65% in 2007, almost 900,000 of whom had access to the Internet but, significantly, only 54% of whom were using broadband as compared with the EU average of 77%. Broadband penetration here was 16.8% in September 2007 as compared to the average of almost 20% for other European countries surveyed. The one bright spot is that the growth rate improved significantly in 2007. It remains the case that in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, broadband is not available. This represents a serious handicap in many sectors from business to public service and private users.
My own county remains among the least serviced in terms of broadband accessibility. This is proving to be a serious handicap particularly in attracting investment to the area. It is no coincidence that Kerry currently has among the highest level of unemployment in the State. Currently, 15% of people in the town of Tralee are unemployed as are more than 14% of people in the north Kerry area. There is no broadband accessibility in many rural isolated areas in county Kerry. A lack of broadband accessibility is proving a hindrance in trying to set up small enterprises in these areas.
Deputy Deenihan, Senator O’Sullivan and I recently met with the IDA in Tralee. At that meeting we argued that owing to high unemployment levels in the county and its dependence on the construction sector we needed to attract IDA jobs into the region. While the IDA conceded this should be a priority it cited a lack of proper infrastructure, of which broadband was a part, as its reason for being unable to do so. I am trying to emphasise here tonight that accessibility to broadband in rural isolated areas is vital to maintaining people in these areas and to the creation of job opportunities.
The same restrictions will apply to people wishing to access public information and engage with public services on-line in areas where broadband is not available. The level of growth for broadband penetration needs to be further increased to ensure all citizens receive the same level of service.
I support the recommendations contained in the motion. I believe it is of equal importance that more is done to ensure the maximum number of people have access to broadband Internet  and that its use is encouraged through the education system and within the community as a whole.
Dáil Éireann 653 Private Members’ Business. e-Government Services: Motion