Government all at sea over role of e-minister


It's official: the Government views its kinda, sorta e-minister as an unimportant, window-dressing role, a bland concession to industry demands rather than a visionary new appointment.

Sure, the Taoiseach hasn't made a formal statement to this effect but he really doesn't have to. Actions, as always, speak much louder than words. Not that there have been many words, either. The announcement by Mr Ahern of a new Minister of State role in the Department of the Taoiseach for the area of the information society was so vaguely phrased that no one in the technology industry - and few civil servants - seemed sure that this was the crucial position of e-minister.

Since the appointment - three weeks on! - there have been no words whatsoever emanating from the Taoiseach's Department on what this role actually is and what its real responsibilities will be.

Indeed, the only further words relating to Ms Hanafin were met with incredulity, disbelief and disappointment by the technology industry. Mr Ahern announced last week that she was to be given yet another junior ministry, this time in the Department of Defence. It had already been worrying enough for observers that Ms Hanafin would carry out the information society minister role alongside her responsibilities as the new Government Chief Whip. Now, she also has Defence obligations.

So the Taoiseach seems to have decided to underline the indifference and scepticism he apparently holds for the very idea of an e-minister by loading on to Ms Hanafin as broad and unrelated a range of responsibilities as possible. Just to make sure she doesn't spend too much time on that information society thing.

What else are we to gather from these ridiculous and unproductive announcements? Every action leading up to, and following, the appointment of Ms Hanafin to her (apparent) e-ministerial role emphasises the last-minute, ill-conceived, poorly visualised nature of the position.

Yet for months, industry and social leaders and lobby groups have called for the creation of an e-minister or e-envoy to coordinate technology policy across all branches of Government and drive future developments in this important area.

The current Government knew it would be calling an election this summer. It looked nearly certain - outside of the island being walloped by a wayward asteroid - that Fianna Fáil would be the dominant party in that new government. The party knew it would be making new ministerial appointments and shuffling departments around as well. The perfect opportunity lay before the Taoiseach to create this essential position, plan its parameters carefully and announce it with a flourish.

The fact that the appointment was made not with a bang but a whimper has remained unclarified for three weeks, despite serious concern from across industry, and has been diluted with further responsibilities placed on the Minister's shoulders, all confirm that the Government was never serious about creating such a role.

This is worrying indeed and has brought feelings of deep frustration to several very senior leaders in the technology industry, who are privately voicing despair that the Government lacks any visionary leadership in the broad area of technology and society, and has little real commitment to a true information society.

They fear the State's citizens will fail to gain from the social benefits of broad and energetic e-government initiatives. They worry that schoolchildren will enter university and the workplace without the skills and familiarity with computers and the internet that they will need in coming decades, making them second-rate employees. And finally, they grow more convinced that, at the current rate, the State's technology infrastructure will soon be inadequate to maintain - much less increase - our economic competitiveness.

All statistics show that the technology and related industries have underpinned the Republic's economic growth and created the bulk of our most valuable, knowledge industry jobs. These are the ones that don't leave the State in a downturn, the inevitable destiny of low-end and low-skilled manufacturing positions. The ones we watched bleed away in the 1980s and early 1990s. And 90 per cent of our job losses since 2001.

Knowledge industry jobs bring further opportunity as well. A recognised base of such workers attracts investment and - even more important, perhaps, these days - helps create the entrepreneurial climate and intellectual capital that will produce home-grown, Irish-based companies.

Right now, Government initiatives in these areas are sprawling and underlinked. In some areas, effort gets duplicated because there's no overarching coordinator of how these projects are developed. Departments often know only vaguely what others are doing.

The Government seems only half-informed of the significance of technology-relevant legislation moving its way through the European Parliament.

Neither businesses nor citizens understand new information society initiatives of direct import to them, such as the E-Commerce Act or the data protection directives. At the moment, most citizens' only concept of e-government is that they can now file their taxes online.

How, pray tell, is Ms Hanafin to pull together and manage all these strands, much less set up and supervise new initiatives, while also looking after her job as Chief Whip and junior minister in the Department of Defence?

Taoiseach, could you please explain?