Hurdles remain in the race to electronic government

Scottish project to centralise information offers timely lessons

Dr Sandra Collins and Dr Natalie Harrower of the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) who won the overall award for the ‘Inspiring Ireland’ project at the 2014 eGovernment Awards

Dr Sandra Collins and Dr Natalie Harrower of the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) who won the overall award for the ‘Inspiring Ireland’ project at the 2014 eGovernment Awards

 

On his visit to Dublin last week, as reported in The Irish Times, Bank of England governor Mark Carney spoke about fiscal risk-sharing across the euro zone, urging it to turn its currency area into a fiscal union in order to succeed.

“Cross-border risk-sharing through the financial system has slid backwards. Europe’s leaders do not currently foresee fiscal union as part of monetary union. Such timidity has costs,” he said in a speech.

One idea in line with this thinking was pitched around as an example: a centralised, EU-wide social welfare system, which would support the transfer of wealth across nations.

Developing and operating such a system would be a mammoth task, both politically and logistically, in light of the projects discussed at the eGovernment Summit, which was also in town last week.

“EGovernment” is how digital technologies, and in particular connectivity, can transform the way governments interact with citizens and society in general.

Tom Loosemore, deputy director of Government Digital Services in the UK, gave a keynote speech entitled eGovernment: Not Complicated, Just Hard.

Simplicity

As the person responsible for the UK government’s digital strategy, his goal is making “digital services so simple and convenient to force people to use them”.

Simplicity, as it turns out, is “hard work”, but Loosemore and his small multidisciplinary teams focus on it “ruthlessly”.

Delivery is a big part of his strategy. “When we decide to do something, what we don’t do is write a big strategy paper. The first thing we do is get out there as quickly as possible, build a prototype . . . get it in front of real users in the real world as quickly as possible,” he says, adding that user feedback often sends him back to the drawing board.

His project Gov.uk, a portal to public service information from the UK government, has nine million users a week.

“The UK is in the middle of a historic change in how people register to vote,” Loosemore says. Eligible voters must now register individually rather than being listed on a form filled in by the head of the household.

He says there is now a 92 per cent satisfaction rate with the online voter registration process on Gov.uk. “If you do the hard work and focus on simplicity, you can transform the relationship.”

But the breadth of Carney’s centralised social welfare idea is probably best highlighted by another speaker at the eGovernment Summit: John Campbell, managing director of Spider Online, a Glasgow-based digital agency. He spearheaded the Tell Me Scotland project for the Scottish government.

Information notices, including planning, licensing and roadworks information, are required by Scottish law to be published so the public can access it.

Local authorities

Before Tell Me Scotland, each of the country’s 32 councils were publishing the notices separately, via the local council website or local newspaper.

Campbell says that although the Scottish government was spending £5.8 million (€7.7 million) annually on these public notices, in some areas, less than 2 per cent of the population was reading them.

And the Scottish government thought it was spending considerably less on the notices: £4.8 million (€6.4 million).

Campbell’s job was to “join up” the 32 local authorities in Scotland. He built “one platform, one solution” in Tellmescotland.gov.uk. Now citizens can find public notices by postcode, keyword, notice type or council area. Information can be viewed in list form or on colour-coded maps.

“It’s all about what people want, and they want as much information [from the government] as possible,” he says.

Government savings

Twenty-four out of the 32 councils, along with 20 other public sector organisations such as Scottish Water and Transport Scotland, are currently on the portal.

Tell Me Scotland went live at the end of 2012. In its first year, Campbell says that it saved the government some £500,000 (€665,100) in advertising spending, “an awful lot more than the project cost to initially develop”.

Now it is running on a fraction of the cost, and Campbell thinks the savings could increase to a seven-figure sum when the remaining eight councils and 50-plus public sector organisations that have expressed an interest join.

Now the local councils are more transparent, “but a byproduct of the project was actually finding out how much was being spent . . . that was a real bonus for the Scottish government”.

Ireland’s 31 local authorities are still very much separate. Campbell says it looks like Ireland was “very similar” to Scotland in terms of legislation and spending on public notices.

“It looks like we could take something like Tell Me Scotland and bring it to Ireland . . . I think the model could probably work in Ireland quite straightforwardly.”

He said the “overriding point” of eGovernment services was “saving taxpayers’ money, and it enables citizens to find out more about what’s going on in their area”.

Information

“I think Tell Me could be the beginning of something regarding how people interact and connect with government. And why not? There’s a lot of information out there. Why not bring it to one place so people can find out what they’re interested in?”

Campbell thinks part of the reason it has not been done already is a “fear of change in the public sector”.

In his talk, Loosemore mentioned the “square of despair” – or the four biggest roadblocks – to adopting new digital government services. They include a lack of money, security issues and procurement. In the UK, a handful of large suppliers previously dominated the market. But the biggest blocker, according to Loosemore, is “the existing process for how things happen”.

With all of these roadblocks, eGovernment might be better off starting small.

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