e-Government Services: Motion (Resumed).

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 653 No. 3

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The following motion was moved by Deputy Simon Coveney on Tuesday, 29 May 2008.

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;

[623]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:

require that this action plan also consider the viability of a number of innovative possibilities for e-Government, including:

require that this action plan also include:

establish a rigorous code of practice governing the treatment of sensitive personal data by public sector organisations, including:

[624]Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:

Deputy Liz McManus: Information on Liz McManus  Zoom on Liz McManus  I welcome this debate. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on e-Government has exposed the disturbing level of poor Government. We should have seen the development of quality public services using the benefits of new technologies at a reasonable cost and within strict timeframes. What we have got instead is a record of inadequate planning, unrealistic expectations, interdepartmental friction and weak central oversight. The report shows that 23 of the 141 flagship projects to provide Government services were abandoned. Of the total of 161 projects, only 74 were fully operational six months after their completion deadline. Their cost of €42 million was 20% over budget. Projects, on average, took 25% longer to complete than planned. In effect, one in three projects were only partly implemented while one in six were abandoned.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General is not only an inventory of the shortcomings of the e-Government strategy, it also offers us clear direction for the future. Its recommendations specifically pinpoint the lack of essential management principles, which is startling. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General reveals a serious deficiency in strategic management and offers good advice. It states:

The report further states:

I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, yesterday to take on board these specific points, and I thought he had an open mind to doing so. I welcome and congratulate Deputy Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for the progress made in reaching an agreement on this motion and, thus, the House will not divide on it. None of us benefits from avoiding learning from the mistakes of the past. All of us, regardless of which side we are on, [626]have an interest in ensuring that sufficient thought and preparation will be invested in the next e-Government strategy, which I understand is due to be published in July, to ensure a better outcome than the two plans which preceded it. It would be difficult to imagine that the outcome of this one could be worse. However, what we can expect now is significantly better than what we would have expected.

As the agreed motion points out, there has been no formal e-Government strategy in place since 2006. This shows a lack of priority and focus being given to changing and improving the method whereby public services are made accessible to the citizen. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report has already shown that there has been a worrying slowdown in the delivery of new e-Government services. I hope the focus that has emerged from this debate will kick-start efforts from the Government, which up to now have been disappointingly half-hearted.

The agreed motion puts greater emphasis on the Government’s obligation to live up to the report’s recommendations. We will have to see better planning, more realistic targets, better cost management, greater interdepartmental co-operation and more effective central oversight into the future. They are only words on paper and time will tell whether the Government is up to the task. We on the Opposition side will work diligently and to our best efforts to ensure that it is.

I have concerns about the overall responsibility and management of this programme. Yesterday the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, stated that he was not in charge of the project but rather that each Department was responsible for its own changes and developments. This motion, which has been agreed between the Government and the Opposition, calls on the Government to provide a framework for implementation of this strategy following its publication. However, it is still not specific about who ultimately is in charge and responsible for it. Clearly, there is a need for overall management and, in a sense, a change of command.

I return to an issue I raised previously. On 1 April this year the REACH project was transferred from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the Department of Finance. It is not clear who made that decision but we know that a project to provide a public service broker, estimated to cost €14 million, ended up costing €37 million and the ongoing cost of it is estimated to be €15 million per year. Will this project still proceed or will it be buried? It would be helpful if a full and frank statement was made regarding its future. Such a frank move would be in line with the spirit of the motion that has been agreed. It would also serve the interests of the public who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of such developments but who too often, as the report has shown, end up simply paying for Government mistakes. It needs to be remembered that, on the one hand, the public are hungry for the provision of greater facilities on-line, whether in terms of public or private services, and that this need has not been met to date. It is still not possible to apply for a driving licence or purchase a new television licence on-line, the provision of which would be a service for people whose time is precious.

However, it is also important to recognise that there is a lack of confidence when one considers that we have been lumbered with e-voting machines that are essentially useless and the storage of which is costing us money year on year. We have also seen the Government run up gargantuan overruns in the cost of PPARS under the charge of the HSE. The cost of that system was approximately €180 million and probably even more than that has been spent on it at this stage. There is a cost in that. That money could have been spent on keeping hospital beds open, given that we now read that they are being closed. It could have been spent on fighting hospital infections. Ultimately, the public pay the bills for Government inadequacies.

We all understand that it is not easy to change and develop new services but at the very least we should and are entitled to expect that the best strategic management is in place when it [627]comes to making these changes. It is not that we do not have the expertise, but it seems there is a certain lack of political leadership. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report indicates a lack of leadership.

My last point is probably odd and tangential to this debate. An impressive presentation of climate change was made at a committee today and all the changes we will have to make to tackle this vital global issue were outlined. If we can provide more services on-line, it will ensure that fewer people have to make journeys by road. Perhaps they can work from or carry out their normal business from home or from centres at work. That is the kind of change that is possible and the hidden benefit of getting the e-Government strategy right.

I wish the Minister of State well in this respect. I hope the next phase into which we are moving and the new strategy will benefit from the analysis of the mistakes made in the past. The Minister of State has shown an openness in dealing with this matter and I wish him well in doing that.

Deputy John Cregan: Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  I wish to share time with Deputies Cuffe, Behan, Curran, Michael McGrath and Barry——

Deputy Ciarán Cuffe: Information on Ciaran Cuffe  Zoom on Ciaran Cuffe  Andrews.

Acting Chairman: Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy John Cregan: Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  I compliment and congratulate our Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, and Deputy Simon Coveney, the main Opposition spokesperson, on arriving at a sensible solution in bringing forward an agreed motion. That is welcome, and I am not surprised. From another forum, I know about the wealth of Deputy Coveney’s knowledge on this subject. I also want to compliment the conciliation and negotiating skills of my good friend, the Chief Whip. It is good that, from time to time in this House, we can be sensible, not oppose for the sake of opposing, and make progress by way of agreement. The Opposition has made some good suggestions, and I welcome them.

E-Government projects that use the interactivity and speed of the Internet to provide public services need someone clearly identifiable to drive cost savings and efficiencies in Departments and public service organisations and to ensure that major projects are delivered on time. Any useful website should be intuitive, fully functional and of great benefit to both the organisation and its customers. E-Government can deliver many savings and efficiencies. It can speed up processes, enabling public interaction with public bodies to take place in a more efficient environment. There are many excellent high-profile and successful implementations of on-line services, such as motor taxation, Bord Gáis, the Property Registration Authority and — I suppose the biggest and most popular of all — the Revenue on-line service. They are all services being widely used by the general public, and tremendous savings have been made through them.

Of course, more can be done. I suppose we can use the old cliché— a lot done but more to do — and I am sure that more will be done in future. I envisage, for example, applications for housing grants, access to our health services, passport applications, and applications for haulage and driving licences being available on-line if people put their heads together and are in a position to move forward with different projects. There are many intelligent and innovative people who can, and I am sure will, implement such projects.

I know that the Comptroller and Auditor General has recommended that future initiatives should concentrate on supporting and strengthening those who are currently falling behind in the provision of e-Government services. It is important that we give as much commitment as possible to supporting e-Government services, and organisations that have shown initiative, [628]talent and application in delivering e-Government projects should be congratulated. There is scope for those people to become involved in other public sector organisations and share their knowledge of delivering e-Government.

There is a wealth of knowledge that can be shared to the benefit of us all as we constantly seek to improve efficiency and effectiveness. A European Commission report issued just last week suggested that 60% of public services across the European Union are now fully available on-line. More than 96% of European schools are now connected to the Internet, two thirds of which are via broadband, which is up from just over zero in 2001. In the health sector, 57% of doctors now send or receive patient data electronically, with 46% receiving results from laboratories electronically.

The report shows that some countries, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Malta and Portugal, offer 100% of basic public services for businesses on-line. Although we have achieved much in Ireland, we acknowledge that we still have a lot more to do in that sector. The European Commissioner for Information Society and Media has welcomed the connectivity figures, and all EU countries must work hard to close the gaps and enhance cross-border communication services as well as services that reach rural and remote regions.

By its nature, e-Government is a constantly changing phenomenon. We cannot rest on our laurels, as e-Government is central to shaping how we evolve as an information society. Progress in this area is increasingly seen internationally as a key indicator of wider information services. I welcome the fact that the Government is focused in particular on the delivery of integrated public services to the customer, on improved internal efficiencies and back-office administration, and on stimulating wider engagement with information and communications technologies in the business community and the public in general. The Government is committed to the objective of having all key public services that are capable of it being delivered on-line.

Just before I finish, I will throw a spanner in the works on e-voting which was referred to. I do not take issue with or want to be flippant about e-voting, but we never intended to have e-voting. I understand e-voting would be on-line voting, which was never planned. We were talking about electronic voting, and I regret that we did not proceed with that. We were trying to achieve perfection and we could not do that — no more than we have perfection in our present system. Coming from a constituency in which one seat was decided on one vote and a bundle of 70 votes were spoiled because they were not stamped, I know that the current system is far from perfection. That could not have happened if we had taken the other route. I rest my case.

Deputy Ciarán Cuffe: Information on Ciaran Cuffe  Zoom on Ciaran Cuffe  I welcome the motion tabled by Fine Gael. It brings into sharp perspective the work that needs to be done in bringing Government and local authority structures kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Although there are some outstanding examples of e-Government — particularly the Revenue site, which stands head and shoulders above the rest — there is an awful lot to be done in other areas. The composite motion that has been worked on by our Chief Whip, Deputy Coveney and others points in the right direction to what I think will be consensus in this Chamber on where we should be going.

I have taken an interest in the web since I first ran for Dáil Éireann in 1997 and had a web page. In those days, it was considered quite unusual for an individual or corporate entity to have an on-line presence. In 2008, it would be remiss of anybody not to have some on-line presence. However, it never ceases to amaze me how badly bodies and institutions can run their on-line services. There are simple rules and procedures that anybody who has an on-line [629]presence should follow. Those include having a home page link on the top of every page and having links that are clearly visible.

The example that I want to bring into the debate is that of my own Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. There are significant problems with its website. The individual links do not appear in the browser, so we cannot cut and paste a link and send it to somebody else. The search function is almost useless, so we cannot readily find information from the site. There may well be a site index accessible from the home page, but I have not found it yet. There may well be an organogram on the home page that shows users how Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is supposed to work, but it does not seem to be there. There are other aspects, such as having a clear organisational directory that shows people who is in charge and what their e-mail addresses and telephone numbers are. Those things are basic, and that information should be available on the local authority’s website.

In fairness, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council website is by no means the worst. Some county and town councils have websites that go back to the early 1990s, with “Under Construction” flashing and men with spades digging furiously, with links that do not work, and with web-hit counters that flash off the page. Even the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council website has scroller contents that go zooming around the page, which people have to snap at before they can find the relevant links.

I say all this in order to point out that, for the most part, the private sector is streets ahead in using electronic means of communicating, buying and selling, wheeling and dealing and telling people what something is about. There is an awful lot that we can learn from it. There is an awful lot that Dáil Éireann can learn too, as we are not beyond reproach either. Some websites have not changed since the 2007 election and, in some cases, the 2002 election. I wish those Deputies well. I am delighted that they can survive without a significant on-line presence.

On a more serious note, I think the report at the heart of the motion contains a huge amount of information from which we can learn. There are certainly examples of good practice, such as people being able to renew their motor tax on-line. Simple tasks can be done very well electronically, but it is the more complex activities of national and local government that need a large amount of time and information put into them. I have no doubt that there are enormous advantages to be gained by putting significant resources into electronic Government. There are ideas I would not be so enthusiastic about, such as electronic voting without a voter verifiable audit trail, but in downloading forms and such like there are good examples that we can learn from in other counties, other Departments and abroad to allow us to revolutionise the way that Government works. I look forward to that happening.

Deputy Joe Behan: Information on Joe Behan  Zoom on Joe Behan  I speak in favour of the agreed motion. This is a subject worthy of consideration and discussion by Members. I welcome the positive political engagement that took place today between the Chief Whip and Deputy Coveney, which has resulted in a very positive and forward-looking motion that will be accepted.

As Members will know, the concept of e-Government originated with an action plan in 1999, the purpose of which was to create a new vision of on-line and self-service delivery of key public services to the citizen. There followed a second plan in 2002 which focused on Departments of State identifying key flagship projects using information and communication technologies in the service of citizens. There have been many successes to celebrate along the way, including the delivery of many key public services on-line to those who wish to avail of them. It is apparent that these services are being accessed by increasing numbers of people as they become familiar with the process.

[630]A recent survey of motor tax on-line customers showed that every person who used it was either satisfied or very satisfied with the service being provided. This indicates that people will respond to an on-line service that is convenient, quick and efficient. There are many other examples upon which we could reflect tonight, including practical service delivery models such as on-line examination results, CAO on-line, Revenue on-line, citizen’s information on-line, on-line library book borrowing services, on-line planning application information and generally the on-line public appointments service as well as access to and interaction with a wide variety of local and central Government Departments and agencies.

Apart from the advantages in terms of ease and convenience to the citizen when these services are available, it is increasingly the case that significant cost savings and efficiencies arise from their use. I note that the Secretary General of the Taoiseach’s Department during his recent appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts indicated that e-Cabinet, for example, is now facilitating significant efficiencies across all Departments. There are probably only two or three Members in the Chamber at the moment who have had the privilege of attending a Cabinet meeting but perhaps there will be one or two others who will have that privilege after next week. The television pictures of Cabinet meetings where Ministers are looking at computer screens and there is a notable lack of files and folders presents a good example to the rest of the community and is something of which we will see more in the future.

As Cathaoirleach of Wicklow County Council in 2006 and 2007, I was very happy to oversee the development of the concept of webcasting of council meetings, which has resulted in the proceedings of the council being available for residents of County Wicklow to watch on the worldwide web. This access to council meetings is a great service to those constituents who wish to find out what business is being conducted on their behalf. Indeed, the business of Wicklow County Council, regrettably, has often been hampered by incidences of obstructive, boorish and destructive behaviour on the part of certain members of the council but the advent of webcasting allows the people of Wicklow to see for themselves exactly what goes on in the council chamber. Hopefully, it will inform their decision as to who they vote for at the next local elections.

I wish to enter a cautious note in my contribution to this debate. While it is commendable to have a system of public service delivery that is accessed electronically, it is essential that we avoid two possible pitfalls. The first would be to mistakenly believe that electronic communication is always preferable to the human and personal contact offered to citizens by the many thousands of dedicated public servants on a daily basis in this country. If we lost this, we would be much the poorer for it. I urge Members to consider e-voting as an exciting additional service but not one to replace forever the personal contact with the public service.

My second concern for the future is that in our efforts to provide an electronic public service delivery model, we will in some way accelerate the marginalisation of those in our society who suffer socioeconomic disadvantage. It would be appalling if the valuable work being done at the moment, and planned for the future, to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of our public services were to become another barrier for the least well-off in our society. It is essential that in all our deliberations on this matter, we constantly remember that we must bring all our people with us.

Deputy John Curran: Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on e-Government. As one who has had an on-line presence since I was first elected to South Dublin County Council in 1999, I leave myself open to the criticism that my web presence is not as good as it should be. However, I acknowledge the relevance of on-line communication. As a member of [631]the Committee of Public Accounts and having read the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and debated it at that committee, I have a keen interest in this motion.

Previous speakers referred to the cost of the programme to date. While I acknowledge that the level of expenditure was in excess of that budgeted, in the period under review in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report the level of expenditure was in the region of €420 million. If one examines the report of the Accounting Officer and the whole picture, one sees that the accountable savings over the same period were approximately €86 million per year, which is well in excess of €500 million for the period under review.

In many ways, that is too crude and too basic a means by which to examine this area. It is easy to say that if we introduce e-Government and information and communications technologies, we will save X amount and simply measure that. We can say we are saving on staff costs, literature, post and so forth, but that is too basic and does not take into account what is going on.

What does e-Government mean and what does it mean to the ordinary person in the street? If one takes the examples of Revenue on-line and car tax on-line, one can see tangible benefits. We can identify, for example, what is being saved by having car tax available on-line but we do not take account of the saving to the individual. It is not so long ago that one had to go to River House in Chancery Street to renew one’s car tax. One joined one queue to get the paperwork done, another to pay and another still to collect the tax disc. In that context, the measure of calculating the benefit of such services is inaccurate in that it only examines the savings from the perspective of the service provider. It does not take account of the saving to the public, which is far greater and in many cases we do not quantify and acknowledge that. It is important to realise that there is a far greater benefit than has been financially quantified from the introduction of such services.

It is important to note that e-Government initiatives within Departments are the catalyst for other developments. I particularly acknowledge developments in my local authority area, that of South Dublin County Council. Unlike the previous speaker, I have nothing but praise for the e-Government initiatives and the electronic communication options available from South Dublin County Council across a wide range of areas. Planning forms, queries and so forth can be dealt with effectively and efficiently on-line. As with all initiatives, one needs someone to drive them forward. In that context, the staff of South Dublin County Council would readily acknowledge that the driving force is the County Manager, Mr. Joe Horan. I use the system on a daily basis and know that not only is it efficient for South Dublin County Council, it is also efficient and time-saving for me.

I highlight the fact that the Government Chief Whip and Deputy Coveney have an agreed motion before us tonight. Given that this is an issue in which we all have a keen interest, that should be acknowledged and appreciated. Effective e-Government is something upon which we need to deliver. In case anyone thinks we have done nothing and things are going nowhere, the Comptroller and Auditor General commented to the Committee of Public Accounts in March of this year:

That is reflected in the agreed motion.

[632]Deputy Michael McGrath: Information on Michael McGrath  Zoom on Michael McGrath  I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, and Deputy Coveney, on agreeing to the motion, which is the correct way to approach this issue. There is no need for it to be adversarial because, essentially, it is about improving the quality of services we can provide to the people we represent.

It has become clear that technology will be at the very heart of the provision of public services in the future as it has become increasingly important in recent years. In embracing technology, it is essential the systems and services we set up on-line are flexible and can adapt to the changing nature of technology and that we can change them to respond to new needs and demands which will emerge from time to time.

As Deputy Cuffe said, many commercial organisations have done great work in providing services on-line. Websites such as Ryanair.com and eBay.com have become part of everyday life in Ireland and around the world. Banking and shopping on-line are part of people’s everyday experiences. It is important we make a distinction between the provision of information on-line and the provision of public services on-line. There are many fine examples of the provision of information on-line by public bodies. The Citizens Information Board website is an outstanding resource which is widely used by the citizens of the State and which provides a wide range of information. The Basis website for businesses is very beneficial to anyone in business or considering starting a business.

In terms of the provision of services, as a chartered accountant, I know from talking to colleagues regularly that the Revenue on-line service has transformed the way they do their work. Revenue has enjoyed real benefits in terms of efficiency. It is probably the single most successful e-Government initiative which allows Revenue to administer the business of twice as many taxpayers with fewer staff. That should be noted. Motor taxation was mentioned. As a former member of Cork County Council, Deputy Coveney will remember seeing people queue outside County Hall in Cork to renew their motor taxation at the end of every month. Thankfully, that will never be the case again. One can view real time air quality monitoring in one’s area on the Environmental Protection Agency website. The Companies Registration Office also has an excellent website and many services are available on-line on the national car test website.

The way the Oireachtas does its business has changed for the better and it has really embraced technology in recent times. For example, replies to our parliamentary questions are on-line. However, we can all do more. Many Deputies, including myself, do not have websites and we need to change that, if we can. Departments have taken very important steps to provide services on-line but I would like to see us do more. For example, I would like the Department of Social and Family Affairs to accept applications on-line. I agree with Deputy Cuffe in regard to local authorities. There is much room for improvement there in terms of accepting housing applications, applications to register to vote and planning applications on-line and posting information on road programmes, road works, etc., on-line. Many local authorities do not provide a staff directory and one cannot find the person to contact on-line to deal with a particular issue.

Data protection and identity theft are serious issues which will increasingly come to the fore as we embrace e-Government in the way we do our business. I agree with Deputy Ferris’s point that we must ensure equality of access to services, that people who do not have access to computers, broadband and the Internet are not discriminated against and that we continue to provide the traditional services on a one-to-one basis which many people enjoy.

Again, I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, and Deputy Coveney on agreeing to the motion. I look forward to the revised e-Government action plan due to be published in July.

[633]Deputy Barry Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  I wish to reflect on the limits of technology referred to by Deputy Behan. Coming up to the last election, I did podcasts. I thought I was great and was trailblazing but I did not get a single response or reaction from anybody. That may be a reflection on my standing in Irish politics.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton  Zoom on Richard Bruton  It went straight to the ballot box.

Deputy Barry Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  That is true. I do not believe it made an impact nor do I believe blogging is an effective method of communicating one’s message. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves but it was worth experimenting. I did three or four podcasts which are still available to anybody who may have interest in this type of thing. They would be very helpful to anybody who is having trouble sleeping at night.

Much has been done in the e-Government area. Deputy Michael McGrath referred to the Basis website which tells one how to set up a creche if one is stuck for details in that regard. It also tells one where to get funding. There is an excellent section on sources of grants for people starting up businesses and for feasibility studies, etc. The Citizens Information Board website provides excellent information. All of these sites are conspiring to put Deputies out of business altogether because the information we used to provide on parish pump type issues is now readily available. Nevertheless, our clinics are still full of people, although with different types of issues.

This debate is very topical because of the OECD report which came out in the past couple of days and which had much to say about e-Government. Some of it was positive while some was negative. Sometimes there is a tendency for the Government to exaggerate the positive and for the Opposition to exaggerate the negative. Therefore, an non-adversarial motion such as this gives Members time to debate an issue in a more mature fashion and allows them to slip quietly into the night because they do not have to vote later. Again, there are positives and negatives in that.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney  Zoom on Simon Coveney  It has nothing to do with the Champions League.

Deputy Barry Andrews: Information on Barry Andrews  Zoom on Barry Andrews  It was very thoughtful of Deputy Coveney to have one eye on the box.

The OECD report said the public service has played a key role in ensuring that the right economic, regulatory, educational and social conditions are in place to facilitate growth and development. It is easy to knock the public service — in fact, it is almost a reflex reaction. Some people like to knock the public service but the OECD report has patted it on the back and we should reflect on that fact. It is relevant to what is going on. The report said that the approach taken by Ireland in trying to assess its public service as a whole is a first in terms of reviewing and seeking to benchmark the public service. Again, that is very positive.

On the negative side, there is the issue of a lack of integration between public agencies. I have occasion tomorrow to speak on an issue relating to acquired brain injury. The advocates of that disability sector complain that they must enter details each time they look for local authority accommodation, health services, social services and advocacy support. They require connectivity between public agencies and the way to do that is through the technology available. We have a great opportunity to push this forward. I hope this motion will provide an impetus to make the necessary improvements.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton  Zoom on Richard Bruton  I wish to share time with Deputies D’Arcy, Terence Flanagan and Bannon.

[634]I congratulate Deputy Coveney on tabling this timely and appropriate motion. It is particularly fortuitous in the context of the e-Government report which is due. Having read the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt’s, contribution, I do not see any evidence of a new approach emerging. We have been told there will be a new strategy in July 2008. We will give one cheer for a new strategy but I see this statement from Deputy Kitt as saying everything is going swimmingly. He is praising all the progress that has been made but almost passing over in silence the serious problems that have arisen with the e-Government strategy which has only achieved half of what it set out to achieve. We have slipped from being first in 2001 to 17th in the EU now. The graph in the OECD report shows we were flying upwards until 2003, we peaked at 55% accessibility on-line and then the graph falls away. Throughout the tenure of the Minster, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, in the Department of Finance, supposedly driving this as the core strategy, it flatlined for the whole subsequent four years. There is an issue of responsibility and a need to acknowledge that things are not working well. Until we square up to this, I will only give one cheer for the existence of a new strategy. The crucial question is whether the new strategy has learned from what went wrong in the last one. What changes will we see in the new strategy that will reflect the lessons learned? I do not think I am doing the Minister of State an injustice when I say one would search in vain for any indication of where these radical changes in the strategy will be and we are told it will be published in two months.

We have had the benefit of the OECD report and of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Minister of State’s officials and other officials have sat down for months with these people and know their thinking yet I do not see the changes being made. A casual reading of the OECD report will show it refers to 30 out of 70 flagship projects delivered. Someone was responsible for the 40 that were not delivered. What went wrong and what do we learn from what went wrong?

The report states there was no financial pressure created through either the Estimates or funding process to ensure these projects were delivered. Will we see change? There was no articulation in the Minister of State’s speech of the financial pressure that would deliver change. The information society group is described as having adopted a cheerleader’s role in respect of the roll-out of e-Government. We have not seen from the Minister of State a change from being a cheerleader to engaging, delivering and driving change. The opportunity for information-sharing in health services which can greatly improve resource use and patient care is not being taken up in Ireland. We do not see an indication of some new thinking and some new drive.

The Opposition will be accused of being unduly critical but the e-Government strategy was not some incidental marginal strategy and a sideshow; this was supposed to be a core element of our drive for the knowledge information society. We were told this was to be Ireland’s area of competitive advantage for the future and we needed to position ourselves in the leading edge, yet this is the area in which we dropped from first to 17th place. It was not just on the watch of the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, admirable though his qualities are. A Cabinet committee with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, the core of Government, was supposed to be driving this project. A committee of Secretaries General was also supposed to be driving this project. All the stops were pulled out, it would seem, and yet we did not deliver. There needs to be some fundamental questioning of why did this not happen. Why did the Government apparently set its ambitions, put in its best people, have people from the Taoiseach down riding shotgun and yet not deliver? We need to see some answers in terms of how the strategy must change for the future if we are not to go merrily off at the end of this debate and announce new targets and new people responsible. If there is a lack of co-operation [635]between groups and an unwillingness to seize the advantages of shared services because different agencies protect their turf, according to the OECD report, and if this is the problem, what changes will we see?

Deputy Tom Kitt: Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  That personal identification issue is one we have agreed in the motion.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton  Zoom on Richard Bruton  I accept that and recognise it is in the motion. However, where in the motion is the issue of agencies not willing to exploit the opportunities of shared services which e-enabled government can deliver? It is quite explicit that turf wars and the attitude of “I hold what I have” is at the heart of it. Even with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance in a Cabinet sub-committee and another sub-committee of Secretaries General, the Government did not crack any of those issues in the course of the past seven years. Why should we have confidence that it has now been cracked? We have not seen it in the Minister of State’s speech. The strategy will have to be a lot more than just repeating and setting targets, high level groups and monitoring here and there. It must be budget-driven. There has to be a strategic group driving it. When the Taoiseach was speaking the other day about the reason some big ambitious projects did not deliver, he spoke quite honestly and said that people running busy Departments and answering parliamentary questions and going here, there and yon, at the beck and call of every crisis in their Department, were expected to at the same time deliver major strategic change. Will we see a different approach and a project team with real authority and real budgets and with the authority to tell recalcitrant units that they must change? That is what we need to see if we are to have confidence that a new strategy will make a difference.

The OECD report has highlighted the lack of joined-up thinking in Government. It has also pointed out — this is not by way of a political point — the lack of joined-up thinking in Fianna Fáil. One cannot put hacks on boards and not give them proper riding instructions and think one is going to deliver high quality service. One cannot treat public servants like pawns and move them around the country and totally disrupt the coherence of much of the planning that has been taking place in Departments. They will not say it in public but if the Minister of State were to talk frankly to public servants they would tell him that decentralisation set back what he is trying to achieve very significantly. The energy of committed and enthusiastic people was dissipated in wasteful exercises on many occasions, simply because the Government had not thought out in advance how to make decentralisation work. Right through the OECD report is the recommendation to think first and then develop a plan and have a road map and benchmarks. The obstacles and barriers should be identified and it should be worked out how to get through them. None of this was done in decentralisation. Time and again, this approach to governance appears and we wonder why, as Deputy Coveney said last night, the spatial strategy failed, why the health strategy failed and why decentralisation failed. There is a core issue and it is one of people taking political responsibility for delivering targets. When one takes political responsibility, one will ensure there is a road map and the obstacles have been foreseen and a way found to overcome them before one puts one’s neck on the line.

I give one cheer for the knowledge society plan but we need to see the Government has identified the barriers and it has a strategy to remove them, that it is genuinely starting with consumers’ needs and redesigning systems around those needs so that agencies are creating e-enabling as a means of delivering to customers and not just putting existing things on-line. We need to see that the Government will identify savings in advance. One of the alarming aspects is the inability to identify savings.

I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours but if a knowledge society strategy like the last one is produced and it does not have a well-thought out implementation plan, tight [636]budgets, benchmarks and responsibilities, and a willingness to drive agencies that will not co-operate, we will have wasted the opportunity.

Deputy Michael D’Arcy: Information on Michael D'Arcy  Zoom on Michael D'Arcy  E-services are a way of life in the private sector in areas such as banking and finance, information and research, travel and accommodation, and consumer spending. There is a need for greater and better access to Government services through information technology, with a recent survey indicating that 78% of respondents wish to avail of such services. There have been excellent successes in some areas of e-Government. One of these is the motor tax on-line service where dozens of local authorities allow people to pay their vehicle tax on-line quickly and efficiently. The Revenue on-line service is another notable success.

For these successes to be replicated in other sectors will require a properly thought out strategy that is implemented in a timely manner and is subject to a rigorous ongoing review process to ensure it is properly functioning, efficient, easily accessible and provides value for money. The wastage of resources that was allowed to happen in the past must not recur. The State could afford to be generous in its allocation of resources in the past, but that will not be possible to the same extent now that the economy is slowing down. There can be no excuse for wastage within any Government sector.

The implementation of successful e-Government projects will require the expertise of international experts in this field, as well as input from those involved in successful projects such as the Revenue on-line service and the motor tax on-line facility. Properly executed and completed within budget, such projects have the potential to deliver significant cost benefits for Departments by reducing the volume of internal administration in such areas as the payment of court fines, commercial rates and other charges, passport and driving licence renewals, student and housing grants and many other areas. This would allow for the transfer of personnel, subject to retraining requirements, from administrative work to the provision of frontline services where there is generally a shortage of staff.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, who is also the Taoiseach-designate, has repeatedly claimed that Fine Gael is bankrupt of policy. I take this opportunity to compliment Deputy Coveney, who has produced an excellent report on broadband provisions and other sectors, on bringing forward this motion. My party is clearly not bankrupt of policy. However, evidence of bankruptcy on the Government’s part is clear in its failure to deliver essential projects on time and within budget. It must produce an action plan which includes an investigation of the viability of innovative uses of technology, such as text messaging and mobile telephone-based web facilities, for access to Government services. These technologies are continually developing but while the private sector is deriving great benefit from their utilisation, the Government is not taking advantage of them. These technologies are routinely used by consumers in the private sector. For example, we must exploit the potential of digital television to provide interactive Government services.

A move towards broader access to information within Departments carries with it a serious obligation to ensure security. A secure on-line digital identification system for users is required and all available safeguards must be employed to protect the identities and personal information of users. We must tighten up policies regarding the use of mobile devices such as laptops, BlackBerrys and memory sticks. Permission to convey databases of personal information outside of Departments on these devices must be restricted to safeguard security in the event of loss or theft. We have seen the negative impact of the loss of such information for Bank of Ireland in recent days and, before that, for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.

[637]Above all, it is vital that we have accountability. It is not sufficient merely to implement an efficient unified system with clearly identified objectives. Responsibility must be taken for delivering that system within an agreed timeframe and within budget. It must then be subject to annual audits to assess user benefits and satisfaction and to undertake comparisons with e-systems in other countries.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and I thank our communications spokesperson, Deputy Coveney, for bringing it forward. I am pleased that agreement has been reached between the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, and Deputy Coveney to implement an agreed action plan on e-Government.

E-Government refers to the transaction of Government services, such as the making of payments to various Departments, on-line. Unfortunately, it has been successful in only a few instances. Until payments can be paid on-line to all Departments, the benefits of e-Government cannot be realised. However, i-Government, which is offered by most Departments, has been a success, allowing the user to print forms and complete them on-line.

Fine Gael supports the development of e-Government services. We realise, however, that certain members of the public such as the elderly prefer to conduct their business on a face-to-face basis with public servants. Such facilities should continue to be available. According to the Department of the Taoiseach, of 143 planned e-Government projects to date, only 86 are live, a success rate of 60%. A total of 45 projects are works in progress, while 24 have never commenced.

According to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on e-Government, which was published last January, the total cost of the e-Government projects undertaken to date was €420 million, which was 20% over budget. In most cases, however, this included only the direct costs such as software and the employment of project consultants. The inclusion of the costs of engaging Civil Service staff on these projects would make the overrun much higher. The Comptroller and Auditor General identified the main failings of the Government’s e-Government strategy as the lack of central leadership and oversight, particularly from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance, lack of specific targets for individual projects against which progress could be measured, and lack of strict budgetary mechanisms. Some projects took 25% longer to complete than planned.

The flagship project of the Government’s strategy was the public service broker, which was envisaged as a one-stop system through which citizens could access all public services provided by the Government. The original estimate for the project was €14 million but its final cost was three times higher at €37 million. In addition, there are ongoing costs of some €15 million per year. Despite the high budget overrun, the service provided is limited and falls far short of its stated aim, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report.

Another disaster was the planned national health portal. This project was supposed to allow the public access to all health services through a single site. It was abandoned in 2005, however, after €2 million had been spent. Likewise, a driving licence applications facility and passport applications service were abandoned after public money was wasted on initial development. In addition, 24 out of 143 planned e-Government projects have not even started. We must learn from the mistakes that have been made not only in this area but also in the case of such projects as PPARS and electronic voting. Such failures must not recur.

On the positive side, substantial savings have been achieved as a consequence of the successful e-Government projects. For example, it is estimated that the Revenue has saved €49 million since the introduction of its on-line service. Some 125,000 queuing hours have been saved as a result of the introduction of the on-line facility for the payment of motor tax. I have used the [638]motor tax website, www.motortax.ie, and found it useful. The expertise of those involved in the development of these successful systems should be harnessed for the purposes of forthcoming projects. The starting point of e-Government should be to put in place on-line systems to deal with applications for passports, driving licences, student grants, death certificates and additions to the electoral register.

In the action plan proposed for e-Government the name of the person who is ultimately responsible for implementing the project should be published. Clear and measurable objectives and a system of deadlines need to be put in place for each project. There should be annual reviews of e-Government projects, including the assessment of benefits, user satisfaction levels and comparison to other countries.

  8 o’clock

As Deputy Coveney’s motion proposes, we should have a code of practice for the treatment of personal sensitive data, including restrictions on the use of laptops and BlackBerrys for databases. The last thing we need to read about in the newspapers is that laptops containing Government databases with the personal information of thousands of people have gone missing. We should also have restrictions on sending in the post databases with personal data. I am glad the above points are included in the motion agreed by Deputy Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt.

The Government has made many mistakes in the roll-out of e-Government, but it has also had success, particularly with the Revenue on-line and motor tax websites, and this should be acknowledged. I hope the lessons in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report can be taken on board and we can stop wasting taxpayers’ money unnecessarily. I commend the motion to the House.

Deputy James Bannon: Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  I strongly support this motion, which is driven by the findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the Government’s e-Government strategy, or lack thereof. One only has to mention e-Government for a vision of misgovernment to take over and the overriding picture is one of fiasco and potential fiasco.

As the Government seems to be unable to complete unaided the projects outlined by Deputy Terence Flanagan, it is obviously time to bring in the cavalry. The information society policy unit of the Department of the Taoiseach must consult those with experience in this area to perfect and expand the existing e-Government initiatives.

In the midst of all this bungling, of major concern to me is the issue of security. There are so many institutions with details of our names, dates of birth, addresses, security codes, passwords and medical records that we have become completely vulnerable to identity theft. We could expect a bank which makes a €1.7 billion profit a year to keep its customer details secure but that was not the case, as the Bank of Ireland proved. Therefore, I would not put my money on the Government to protect my vital statistics. I am a betting man and I would not like to bet that the information would be secure with the Government. Its record of mismanagement in this area is a complete disaster.

Card fraud amounted to €14 million last year and apparently the latest form of theft involves distraction techniques. This can be done as simply as a child waving a newspaper in one’s face at an ATM machine. One becomes distracted and another child nips in and makes off with a few hundred euro. The same could happen with the Government in a scenario which goes like this: the Government, which has all my details on computer with those of approximately 4 million other people, distracts us and itself with a promise or two, broken later of course, and while no one is looking, all the data disappears. One might say this is a flippant look at a serious situation but it is a valuable lesson nonetheless.

[639]The future lies with e-Government, but security is a basic right of every citizen whose details are entrusted to a Government or non-governmental organisation. Assurances must be given that security will be put in place to protect what will be extensive and highly confidential data and extreme measures must be put in place to honour these assurances.

After the theft of a laptop containing details of Irish blood donors in New York, Deputy Ruairí Quinn asked how many other Government laptops had gone missing. The answer to his question turned out to be 80. This is extremely worrying and I certainly fail to remember news headlines about filing cabinets disappearing from Departments in the days of hard copy information storage. It seems we take one step forward in terms of progress and a number of steps backwards. There is a worrying lack of Government policies relating to security for e-data. With regard to the Irish Blood Transfusion Service laptop the question that must be asked is why was a laptop with details of Irish blood donors taken to New York and treated with such disregard.

We also have the issue of data retention whereby details are stored but nobody knows by whom, where it is kept or, most importantly, who has access to it. While this is permissible under a sequence of data retention legislation, I ask the Minister whether it is morally right.

It is becoming increasingly urgent that we debate in this House the growing availability of electronic systems used to monitor our citizens with regard to data privacy and retention. A series of data losses in the UK have focused attention on the entire area of data protection with the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson stating:

I certainly endorse that view.

This month, Sweden launched a new citizen-centred e-health strategy designed to ensure the provision of information to support improvements in health care. This e-health strategy will be used to ensure health care professionals can devote more time to patients and adapt health care provisions to individual needs. The strategy calls for tight security on any e-health system. Increased use of e-health will be combined with effective security measures designed to ensure that highly sensitive confidential information relating to individual patients or users is securely handled according to the strategy.

This move is designed to produce a strategy that examines progress in Sweden’s health care settings to date and lists six action areas for co-operation and co-ordination at national level, which is extremely important. The first three relate to better conditions for ICT in health care and care of the elderly and the latter are about improving e-health solutions and adapting these to patient needs, which is also important.

Whenever health systems are ranked, in Europe Sweden seems to come out on top or very near the top. We can learn many lessons from the Swedish health care system and its e-Government provisions. At this late stage, after 11 years in power, will the Government take a lesson from what other nations are doing to protect their citizens’ data? I would like to hear a response from the Minister on the Swedish system.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I must apologise for my voice and before it fades completely I propose the withdrawal of amendment No. 1 to the motion.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[640]Deputy Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I move amendment No. 2:

welcomes, in that context, the Department of the Taoiseach’s commitment to publish a new plan for the Knowledge Society this July setting out the new strategy for the use of technology in Government in the context of modernisation and performance improvement;

proposes that:

the Government should ensure that responsibility for the implementation of the projects identified in the strategy is clearly assigned and that the plan should:

the Government should consider assigning an ‘innovation brokering’ function, to encourage and support, where appropriate, partnerships with academic institutions and industry, [641]to stimulate innovation, harnessing emerging technologies to support modernisation and performance improvement, initially focusing on:

the Government should also include, in respect of modernisation and transformation projects supported by technology:

the Government should also establish a rigorous code of practice governing the treatment of sensitive personal data by public sector organisations, including guidelines and procedures for the storage, transmission and transportation of personal data (including on laptops, data keys etc.), and six-monthly review of all encryption and security software procedures.

With my remaining vocal cords, I commend Deputy Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, for being able to reach agreement on a joint motion. It is progressive and it does the State a service. We are in common agreement on the need to move towards the greater use of e-communications in Government business. No one disputes that. How we achieve it is the key issue. Rather than hammering backwards and forwards, with the Opposition claiming that the Government is doing nothing and it is all wrong, and the Government retorting that the Opposition knows nothing and it is all happening, it is far more progressive for the Dáil and the Houses to tease out the details of where we can reach agreement as has happened with the drafting of the amendment to the motion. I commend Deputy Coveney and the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, in this regard.

The motion comes at a timely moment not alone in respect of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, but, particularly, the publication on Monday of the OECD report which is of significant consequence in terms of the development of public services in Ireland. The report comes at an interesting time. It is clear we are at a stage when we will be not as certain as we have been over the past ten or 15 years of the levels of growth in income and other taxes. In these circumstances, there will be, rightly and justly, real pressure on us to make the most effective use of public money. In this context, there is no greater opportunity for us to deliver greater efficiencies and improvements in public service than through the deployment of new digital technologies which are rapidly evolving.

My ministerial office is responsible for communications and broadcasting. One can see emerging a pattern of rapid change in the computing industries with services now being stored [642]and delivered not from servers within the office but from a remote network, one of the tools of the trade in computing. Not having to have complex, heavy pieces of machinery in every office of the State and being able store information remotely and access it over the Internet will result in huge efficiencies.

Efficiencies are also being delivered through changes in technology in the communications area which allow for the fast transfer of data. This does not happen only in the area of traditional fixed line networks but in regard to a new range of mobile devices, all of which we are using in a way not expected five years ago. This work in terms of how we promote a new e-services strategy within Government is timely. It fits in with what I understand as the general recommendation of the OECD review, namely, that we need a flexible public service that is networked across other Departments. We cannot have one Department working on an issue without recognising that often three or four other Departments have an equal interest or responsibility in that regard. Co-ordination can work far better in areas where there is open communication and digital communication systems which work effectively together.

I would like now to concentrate on broadband, an issue raised by a number of Members opposite, and, I am sure, by Members on this side of the House, in terms of how we can, through the provision of broadband, improve the services we use in the State. The State can be a leader or a real stimulator of broadband applications. The State, through its own procurement policies and delivery of its own services, has the potential to be a leader and to assist other commercial sectors of Irish society to make similar efficiencies and improvements in customer service. It can also lead in terms of the use of new broadband communication technologies to sell not alone in Ireland but around the world.

The delivery of public services in the area of health, education and various Departments will assist in building up a volume of business for data broadband networks which will help them become commercially applicable elsewhere. Crucial development is often in the area of small applications. Immediate usage will not necessarily be in the area of 100 mega connectivity broadband applications but in ubiquitous connectivity. The fact that we can connect to the Internet in a whole variety of locations through a wide variety of platforms is what will give us as a country the advantage over other countries. It is our flexibility in public policy making — the type of flexibility shown here tonight — that should provide us with an advantage to spend Irish taxpayers’ money well, to create Ireland as a best case example for development of new e-communication services.

I commend the amended motion and both parties involved in its drafting.

Deputy Noel J. Coonan: Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  I wish to share time with Deputy Coveney.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Noel J. Coonan: Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  I welcome the news that agreement has been reached between the Chief Whip and Deputy Simon Coveney on an amended motion. I am glad the Chief Whip is looking to our side of the House and acknowledging we have ideas and the ability to put forward motions from which the country will benefit. I hope this is the start of a new trend.

I listened to the contribution made by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. There is not much point talking about a new strategy if the infrastructure to deliver it is not in place. It certainly is not in place in rural Ireland. The Government must first ensure that infrastructure is put in place so as to afford the people of rural Ireland an opportunity to move with the modern age, which is in e-Government. The [643]national broadband scheme will, it is hoped, provide broadband services in areas currently unserved. I welcome the Minister’s announcement that the scheme will be rolled-out later.

The motion calls on the Government to consider a series of innovative solutions to improve the performance of e-Government. It is important when considering the motion to ensure that the realm of e-Government becomes more user-friendly. I hope the Departments using e-Government will avail of the opportunity to provide on-line user-friendly application forms. The application process for the farm early retirement scheme — for which I am seriously considering applying — is so convoluted and technical that even legal professionals have difficulty making them, which is incredible.

We need broadband in unserviced rural areas and we need it now. Initiatives to bridge the gap in respect of broadband coverage need to be constantly updated to ensure people can avail of the new e-Government strategy. This strategy has the potential to transform public services and citizens’ experience of it. To achieve this, there needs to be a re-organisation of the politics behind it. I am glad the Fine Gael motion has been taken into consideration tonight. It is hoped the next step will be to improve connectivity, band width and download speed.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Finance, and Taoiseach-elect, Deputy Brian Cowen, needs to seriously apply himself to the issue of e-Government and high speed broadband connectivity. Both must be a priority. We need more successful projects like the motor tax on-line service.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Hear, hear.

Deputy Noel J. Coonan: Information on Noel Coonan  Zoom on Noel Coonan  It would be great if the public had an opportunity to report, on-line, illegal dumping, to obtain statistics about their neighbourhood or to find out about school term dates. These basic facilities exist in other countries. It is important we keep up with international best practice.

The OECD report published earlier this week highlighted the problems in respect of e-Government. It stated that from a wider perspective there is concern that Ireland is falling behind in international benchmarks of on-line service provision. The report makes it clear that we are not keeping up with international best practice and need a new approach to the use of technology.

I am glad the Government has seen the sense of our recommendations. We want an aggressive roll-out of broadband to coincide with this new e-Government strategy. Fine Gael has been to the fore in driving forward both of these issues and will continue to push them. High speed broadband has become essential in life, education and business and is no longer an extravagance. As modernisation continues to sweep the country, it is imperative our infrastructure is up to speed in this regard.

I hope the e-Government initiative will be more successful than the better local government initiative. Most of us have experienced what happens when one rings a Department or local authority, namely, one is given the option of pressing buttons 1, 2 or 3 following which one hears a message indicating the mailbox is full, the person required is on annual leave or asking that a message be left and the person will return the call. All of this is to the strains of “Have I told you lately that I love you?” It is so frustrating but we hope when one uses e-Government that the least one will get is some information.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney  Zoom on Simon Coveney  I wish to outline the purpose of Fine Gael tabling this motion in Private Members’ time. We want an accepted recognition that Ireland needs a new strategy for modernisation and information technology in Government. It is an embarrassment that we [644]have had no formal strategy in place since early 2006 on this issue since the new connections strategy finished at the end of 2005. We want to insist on lessons being learned from previous strategies that have cost, and continue to cost, significant sums of money, yet have not delivered sufficiently. We need to recognise the notable failures and learn the lessons from such failures and also recognise the successes so that we replicate that model and apply it to other areas to get the success we have got from the Revenue Commissioners in terms of making services available on-line. We are trying to influence the thinking of Government behind the policy formation and more important, perhaps, the planning and implementation of the Government’s next e-Government strategy. We are emphasising once again the priority that we in Fine Gael give to the creation of an advanced modern information society in Ireland and the necessity for clear Government commitment, direction and leadership to achieve that end. We were looking for agreement from all parties, including Government, on the priorities set out in our original motion, as a recognition that this has been a worthwhile debate in outlining ideas to progress and re-ignite the modernisation agenda through advancement in communications technology.

There is a perception among some people that e-Government is simply about providing information on-line, putting information that was in pamphlets and books on to websites to allow citizens to access information via the Internet. Accessing information on-line is, of course, part of e-Government but only that. What we need to achieve is the creation of new solutions through technology to provide a full range of services to the public, allowing full interaction across a broad range of public services and also to facilitate interaction between Departments, local authorities and public sector bodies that can improve efficiency, drive down costs and, most important, provide better Government.

What this issue is about is Government reflecting the needs of a modern society in the provision of public services. It is about providing 24 hour access to services and information in the same way that the private sector has already done in a range of areas. Most families planning their holidays look up the Aer Lingus and Ryanair websites after dinner in the evening and probably book their flights, hotels, hire care and their place by the pool side, if they wish to do so, via the Internet.

Deputy Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  If they were to go to Cork they would not have to fly anywhere.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney  Zoom on Simon Coveney  The weather is much better there so they can do that. If one compares how the private sector has reflected on the way in which modern society lives and interacts with how the Government has responded it is clear we are lagging behind as in so many other sectors. For most people time is at a premium. It is no longer good enough to provide essential public services from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as is sometimes available or to allow planners be accessed by the public for two or three hours two days per week, which is the case in many local authorities. It is no longer acceptable when we know we can provide these services in a much more cost effective way in terms of how we spend taxpayers’ money that we do not do it.

A recent survey conducted by a local authority in the UK stands over the figure that it is 50 times less expensive to provide basic services on-line on average than it is to provide those services on a face to face basis, employing somebody to meet a member of the public.

This motion may sound somewhat technical and a little boring but it is hugely important and relevant to our everyday lives. It is about facilitating often basic and useful tasks, such as reporting a pothole or a faulty public light over the computer from home. It is about creating [645]the capacity for citizens to apply for planning permission on-line. It was pointed out last night that we have the ridiculous situation of most local authorities providing a good information service where one can go on-line and look at planning applications and the detail of them but one cannot apply for planning permission or make an objection on-line. One can see the detail but one has to get into one’s car and travel down to the local authority and fill out a form before making a comment or an objection. That is the kind of nonsensical, non-joined-up thinking that currently exists. It is about people waiting at a bus stop accessing, via PDA, information on when the next bus is due or whether it is stuck in traffic. It is about reporting a crime to one’s local Garda station on-line as opposed to waiting until it opens next morning. It is about applying for a new passport or a new television licence. One can renew one’s television licence on-line but not get a new one, yet we are trying to stamp out the practice of people not paying their television licence fee.

It is about applying and paying for, in one transaction, driving licences, student grants, housing grants, birth certificates, marriage certificates and a whole range of other basic services that we should be able to access at home in the evening after work while spending time with our families. It is about getting registered to vote without having to go to a Garda station, the local authority or one’s local TD. It is about GPs being able to access patient records from hospitals and vice versa, hospitals being able to access patient records in accident and emergency departments if somebody comes in unconscious as a result of a car crash. Instead, in the accident and emergency departments, there is a scramble to find out who is the person’s GP. That information should be available on a centralised health computer system so that when people from Cork are in Dublin and get sick or have an accident and go to a local doctor their information is available on a database. These are the practical solutions e-Government can provide. That is why this motion is important even though technically boring.

These are not projects that should be promoted because Ireland needs to be seen to be embracing technology, although that is important in terms of the image we send out to the rest of the world, but because through technology we can deliver better Government that takes account of modern living and because it can deliver services in a far more cost effective way. E-Government or modernisation in Government is about delivering better government. That is why it is important.

Individual local authorities and individual public bodies in different parts of the country are developing their own IT processes independently of one another. We will face the difficulty of trying to co-ordinate all of those at a later stage, the issues Deputy Bruton pointed out earlier, if we do not take charge centrally.

I thank the Minister for agreeing a joint motion with me on which we both worked and made compromises. We have got what we want as an Opposition in terms of content in our motion. I thank the Minister for that. That is not to say this is a rubber-stamping of the Government’s future strategy on e-Government. We will seek to ensure that all of what we have achieved in this motion is delivered on time as set out, that the targets set out are delivered, that the delivery and accountability system is put in place and the security system for people’s data is put in place. In the past two years, 123 items holding personal data, including laptops, memory sticks and mobile telephones, have been stolen across 15 Departments. We have a serious data protection problem which must be addressed through a detailed, comprehensive code of conduct. Let us have delivery on this issue. I look forward to following developments, now that we have agreed a framework within which progress is to be made.

[646]Amendment agreed to.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.


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