Time for public service chiefs to get real about smart economy


NET RESULTS:A defensive attitude among public-sector IT managers is not helping Irish software firms, writes JOHN COLLINS

EARLIER THIS week I participated in a discussion panel on “The Future” at the e-Government Symposium, an event that brought together senior civil servants, representatives of telcos and technology firms, and other interested parties.

To get the ball rolling Iona Technologies co-founder, Innovation Taskforce member and occasional Irish Timescolumnist Chris Horn gave a thoughtful and interesting speech on the smart economy and what it can deliver.

In the discussion that followed, Chris and other panellists were making the case for State agencies to buy more products from indigenous Irish companies. After all, software houses like Curam, Fineos and Propylon are selling to governments and public bodies around the world but find it difficult to even get in the door of State agencies here.

It was understandable that public servants were concerned about taking a risk on software from small Irish companies, Chris said. After all, as the cliche goes, “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. Well certainly not in the Irish public sector anyway.

But buying from large reputable companies is not without risk either. The biggest “black hole” in terms of technology spending in the Irish public sector involved software from SAP and consulting from Deloitte – two world leaders in their respective markets.

Although I didn’t mention it by name, this was a reference to the Health Service Executive’s infamous Payroll Personnel and Related Systems project, or Ppars as you probably know it, which ballooned out of control and never delivered on what it was supposed to do.

One of the most senior civil servants present quickly pulled me up and interjected from the floor. “The thing that people forget is that Ppars pays 70,000 people’s salaries every month,” he began before taking issue with my criticism of the project.

To say I was surprised is stating the obvious. I was shocked to my core. Perhaps mentioning Ppars in front of public servants was not a good idea. It was certainly a low point for IT in the public sector and the fallout from it meant that many innovative projects were canned.

But let’s look at the facts. Minister for Health Mary Harney told the Dáil in December 2008 that €180 million had been spent on Ppars to date, although the HSE has not or cannot come up with a final figure. Even if 70,000 people are being paid by Ppars, that leaves about another 42,000 HSE employees who are not.

The HSE is not able even to put an exact figure on how many people work in the health service – one of the issues Ppars was supposed to address.

SAP itself happily pays its 50,000 staff around the world every month, no doubt using its own system. Oracle would have been the other obvious option of a major software vendor that could have provided software for the task. Again it pays its 70,000 employees in multiple currencies and locations around the globe with no problems and you can bet your house that Oracle boss Larry Ellison did not pay €180 million to develop the system.

Under no criteria could Ppars be dressed up as having been a success. And don’t get me started on the e-voting debacle, which was built on a version of Windows that Microsoft was putting out to grass even as millions of taxpayers’ euro were being poured into it.

It’s understandable that public servants are touchy about media criticism. Clearly they are under siege on many fronts and public debate in the last two years has, rightly or wrongly, set the public sector a+gainst the private sector. But the defensive attitude of public-sector IT managers did not spring up in the last two years – it was there even in the boom time.

One of the projects I referenced at the conference was the Community Health Data Initiative in the US. Last March, the Department of Health and Human Services made reams of data available online about community health. Companies from Google to Microsoft to start-ups responded by using the data to create new applications. For example, Microsoft’s Bing search engine displays patient ratings immediately below search results for US hospitals, while Google has added a layer to its Maps which enables users to find out, for example, which is the best US city to get chest pain in.

This kind of data could be made available in Ireland, creating fruitful collaborations between the public and private sectors. In fact, the Irish public sector has obligations under the EU’s re-use of public sector information directive to make information available.

There’s a section about it on the websites of most Government departments. Like the Freedom of Information section of many Government departments sites, it’s the bit with tumbleweed blowing through.

The e-Government Symposium did showcase many innovative projects from local authorities and central government. We heard about efforts to streamline public procurement to make it easier for small firms to bid for government work.

But it’s a pity that a closed and conservative culture that permeates the very top of the public service risks obscuring that positive work. If we are serious about building a smart economy, there is plenty that the public sector can do to help.