Summary of Findings

The rapid advances in information and communications technology (ICT) in the 1990s, and in particular the potential for development of widespread internet use, resulted in the emergence of the concept of the information society. This refers to the increasing dependence on ICT in all aspects of society, including in the provision of public services. On-line availability of public services, and the associated transformation of the business of public service agencies, came to be referred to as eGovernment.

In January 1999, the Government launched an action plan for implementing the information society in Ireland. This set out a series of actions and initiatives for the period 1999-2001, including development of telecommunications infrastructure (in particular, national availability of broadband), new legislation and other measures to enable both public and private businesses to operate effectively and safely on-line, and a range of eGovernment initiatives and projects.

A second action plan for implementing the information society, called New Connections, was launched in March 2002, covering the period 2002 to 2005. The themes of the first plan were repeated, but the second plan was more ambitious. The projects listed in the plan ranged in sophistication from those offering on-line information about services, to those allowing full on-line processing of transactions by individuals and businesses. Others were inter-agency projects designed to improve efficiency by transforming the way in which public service agencies interact.

New Connections also referred to a key eGovernment infrastructure project ? the Public Services Broker ? that was already underway. This envisaged developing a single point for access to all on-line public services. Responsibility for development of the Broker was assigned to a special unit called Reach, set up within the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

This examination was undertaken to establish the extent to which the eGovernment projects and initiatives outlined in the two action plans were implemented. The main issues addressed in the examination were

  • Is the eGovernment initiative meeting its objectives in terms of
    • providing better public access to the latest information about the services offered by government departments and agencies
    • enabling the public to conduct and conclude transactions with departments and agencies 
    • transforming the internal efficiency of departments and agencies, and their interaction?
  • How is Ireland performing in each of these respects, relative to other comparable jurisdictions? 
  • How has Reach performed, and in particular, has it put in place the necessary eGovernment infrastructure in a timely and cost-effective manner? 
  • Are there adequate arrangements for appraisal, financial control and monitoring of eGovernment projects? 
  • Have the risks, constraints and opportunities in the areas of technology, data security, business transformation and consumer demand been properly managed?

Outturn on eGovernment Projects

In response to a questionnaire-based survey, central government departments and agencies reported that the estimated cost of eGovernment activity undertaken or commenced in the period 2000 to 2005 would be almost ?420 million. This includes the estimated cost to completion of projects that were still in development. The projects reported by departments and agencies are listed in Appendix B.

There was considerable impetus behind the Government?s first action plan for the information society but, despite the stated objective in New Connections of having all services capable of on-line delivery available by 2005, progress slowed in later years. Many of the projects included in New Connections proceeded more slowly than planned. A substantial number did not proceed, or started but were later abandoned. The high level of ambition that characterised New Connections may explain some of the shortfall in the overall achievement.

Some of the projects included in the action plans focused on delivering on-line information about public services. Most of these were delivered successfully. They included two websites providing information about public services, presented from the point of view of users (individuals or businesses) rather than along the traditional lines of organisation of public service agencies. Some information-focused websites have features that allow users to customise the information they receive, or to receive email alerts when new material is posted on-line.

Many eGovernment projects planned to allow users to carry out on-line transactions with public service providers. Some were very successful, such as those allowing on-line payment of motor tax, filing tax returns and paying taxes, applications for Area Aid, and property registration searches. However, a number of planned on-line transaction projects have not been implemented. These include on-line services for applications for housing grants, passports, haulage licences, and driving licences. The requirement for more stringent identity authentication contributed to the lack of progress in some cases. In general, there was more success in delivering the planned on-line services for businesses, than for individual users.

While Ireland has some on-line transaction services that compare favourably with what has been achieved elsewhere, an EU-wide benchmark survey indicates that it has achieved the highest level of on-line service in only ten of 22 key public services for individual and business users. Overall, Ireland?s position is around the average for EU member states and some states are delivering a significantly higher level of on-line service. Greater emphasis should be placed on looking at the experiences of other countries and learning from them for application to Irish public services.

Many departments and agencies report having achieved efficiencies as a result of implementing eGovernment projects. In some organisations ? including the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and Food and the Revenue Commissioners ? these claims are quantified and substantial. However, in most cases, the claims of benefits achieved are relatively non-specific.

The management process for the administration of eGovernment projects needs to be improved. 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.

Developing the Public Services Broker

Reach was established in 1999 as a unit within the Department of Social and Family Affairs, with a mandate to develop an integrated social services system (ISSS). The objective of the system was to bring greater coherence to the provision of social services by making them better co-ordinated, easier to understand, more accessible and user friendly, and more efficient and easier to manage.

Against the background of the Government?s first action plan, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance developed the concept of a Public Services Broker. This envisaged that a single website (the Broker) would integrate public services, sharing data and establishing links between all the services associated with or affected by significant events for website users e.g. on the death of a relative; setting up a business, etc. Because the Broker concept was considered to be compatible with the ISSS project, responsibility for developing the Broker was assigned to Reach.

Government approval for the development of the Broker was given in May 2000, but neither a budget nor a timetable for the project was set at that time. Reach began to organise and staff up for the revised mandate, and to plan how the Broker might be delivered. It moved through software development stages designed to test the Broker concept (completed by August 2001) and then to develop a prototype of the proposed system (completed by April 2002). At the same time, work was underway to find a partner to build, deploy and operate the Broker. The invitation to tender for provision of those services was issued in July 2002.

The Broker project was reviewed in late 2002, in the light of the responses received from bidders. This led to a scaling back of the proposal. A revised and less ambitious first phase (Broker Version 1) was approved by the Cabinet Committee on the Information Society in May 2003. At that stage, the cost of development of the proposed Broker Version 1 was estimated at around ?14 million.

A contract to develop and service the Broker Version 1 was signed in February 2004, with a target to have the system operating by August 2004. Delays in completing the project occurred for a variety of reasons, and the project was finally completed in December 2005. The final expenditure was of the order of ?37 million, when all the costs associated with development of the system are included. Ongoing costs are expected to be in the region of ?14-15 million a year.

Reach has delivered a complex ICT system in the form of the Broker. While it does not operate in the way originally envisaged, it nevertheless has potential, if used. However, only a small number of services to the public are currently using the Broker. Successful aspects of the system include

  • the Inter Agency Messaging Service, which offers a standards-based, simple means for departments and agencies to exchange documents and data with each other
  • identity authentication, which allows taxpayers to access their PAYE income tax accounts on the Revenue Online Service (ROS) website ? while this process is somewhat cumbersome, it is functioning successfully, and is capable of being extended to other public services
  • an interoperability framework, in the form of a comprehensive set of standards and guidelines that are available to all public service agencies to use in constructing their own internal and external-facing systems.

Reach has not delivered the ISSS. Responsibility for this has been transferred to other parts of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

The original idea for the Broker was innovative. However, the feasibility of the project was not examined early on and planning was weak. As a result, expectations for the project were unrealistic, and implementation has been far slower and more costly than was anticipated. While managers in Reach and in the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, and Social and Family Affairs demonstrated strong commitment to the project, the governance structures were inadequate, but improved over time. A clear and practical vision and strategic plan for the future direction of Reach and the Broker, and an appropriate organisation and governance arrangement, are now urgently required. A wide-ranging review of Reach and the Broker is currently underway.

Relationships between Reach and its (potential) client departments and agencies have been uneven, and there is some dissatisfaction with past levels of service. If the Broker is to deliver value for the investment made, other departments and agencies will have to use it. The memorandums of understanding currently in place between Reach and client departments and agencies should be replaced by more specific service level agreements.

Consideration should be given, in conjunction with the relevant departments and agencies, to deepening, expanding and improving the Broker-enabled identity authentication service and to identifying the related costs and benefits, and resource and governance issues.

Managing the Development of eGovernment

The Departments of the Taoiseach and of Finance played a key role in developing a vision for eGovernment, and in identifying opportunities for improving significantly the quality of public services. Departments and agencies proposed individual projects for inclusion in the Government actions plans, and were responsible for their delivery and the achievement of planned business objectives.

While broad strategic objectives were identified for eGovernment, measurable targets were not set in relation to those objectives. There was scope for more evaluation and prioritisation of the plans that were presented in the light of overall Government aims. More active central oversight of the overall strategy through a more quantified and robust review of progress against service-wide targets, and greater engagement with relevant departments to identify and resolve barriers to progress and to engagement on cross-cutting initiatives, would have improved the chances of achieving the strategic objectives for eGovernment.

The momentum towards developing eGovernment that was evident in the early years of the decade appears to have faded somewhat. This is evident in the absence of a formal eGovernment strategy since the beginning of 2006. However, the Department of the Taoiseach is currently working with other departments and agencies on the development of a new strategy.

In some areas of the public service ? for instance Revenue, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Department of Agriculture and Food, as well as in smaller agencies such as the Property Registration Authority and Ordnance Survey Ireland ? the opportunities of new technology for business transformation and for meeting consumer demand were well recognised and addressed. In some other public service providers, it was not clear that the opportunities were as well recognised. Departments and agencies in this situation may need more encouragement, support and incentives if opportunities to improve the quality of the services they provide through application of ICT are to be properly evaluated and exploited, where it is cost effective to do so.

The Information Society Fund was established as a centrally managed fund, to be used to provide financial incentives for the achievement of information society initiatives. Over the six years 2000 to 2005, in excess of ?57 million was paid out of the Fund, in support of 176 information society projects and initiatives. An estimated ?53.3 million, or 94% of the total, was allocated to eGovernment projects. This accelerated the pace of eGovernment, and resulted in some projects being undertaken that would not otherwise have proceeded. The funding was directed mainly towards large well-resourced departments and agencies that already had established strategic eGovernment plans and which therefore had a higher likelihood of success.

Non-availability of funding was not identified as a barrier to progress in many cases. Senior management commitment and the resolution of organisational, process, human and technological issues appeared to be more important in encouraging eGovernment than additional funding. In a future eGovernment strategy, these barriers and capacity issues would need to be addressed if the potential improvements in the delivery of public services are to be realised.

Measurable targets should be set for each of the strategic goals of eGovernment, and responsibility for the achievement of the goals should be formally assigned. Annual eGovernment progress reports should be published, focusing on the achievement both of strategic goals and of planned project impacts. The effectiveness of the eGovernment strategy should be formally and independently evaluated from time to time.

For each major process transformation project, whether within an individual department/agency or across a number of departments/agencies, a current performance baseline should be established against which results can be measured. The necessary supporting arrangements should be put in place.

eGovernment projects that cross organisational boundaries present opportunities for more efficient and effective delivery of government services. However, by channelling funding through traditional departmental ?silos?, existing budgetary arrangements may have militated against effective cross-cutting eGovernment developments. Consequently, cross-cutting projects should have unitary management. Directors for such projects should be appointed from the bodies involved in the projects, and have clear responsibility and accountability for delivery.

While some departments and agencies have plans and the capability to move forward, others are at earlier stages of development and appear uncertain how to move forward, or are unwilling to do so because of the risks and investment involved. It is recommended that central or external guidance and support be provided to enable them to assess objectively the current status and opportunities, to plan their development and to implement those plans.