Eircode: there goes another €38m down the drain

Poorly designed postcode system should already have been returned to sender

I don't mean to alarm anyone, but I was recently asked for my Eircode. There it was on the form in Ikea you fill in to get your flatpack furniture delivered to your home. "Eircode". I felt like Indiana Jones, stumbling upon some mysterious treasure in a vine-covered temple.

We like to forget Eircode exists, like the time we spent all that money on out of date iodine tablets, or when they had to recycle the electronic voting machines into traffic cones. But the Irish postcode system, a year and a half into its existence, is still lingering like a bad smell.

Has anyone been fired over Eircode, I wonder. Generally if you were asked to develop something in work that cost the company the guts of €40 million and no one really used it, I don’t think your bosses would be breaking out the bunting. But tasks completed by Government departments, civil servants and the agencies and companies they bring in to help them don’t operate on the same plane as real world business. It was perhaps for them that Beckett wrote “fail better”.

Eircode cost €38 million. This was, wait for it, €20 million more than was forecast. Plenty of things caused that massive leap in costs. The initial system planned was different to the Eircode we know and love today, which really inspires confidence in the Eircode vision. Then there was the hiring of those magic consultants, and €9 million to encode millions of records from public sector bodies that they forgot to put in at the start. Oops!


A year into Eircode, last July, An Post had no information about the system's uptake. I'm not going to blame An Post for this, because I doubt they have time to deviate from their main current function, which is seems to be spending money on posting people glossy colour flyers about how a postal service exists in Ireland. An Post later said that less than 5 per cent of mail customers are using Eircode.

For the long haul?

Freight and supermarket companies were expected to use it widely, yet in the run up to its launch hauliers repeatedly expressed reservations about it. A survey showed 96 per cent don't use Eircode. The Freight Transport Association Ireland said the random nature of the code system (adjacent properties have no numerical correlation with each other's Eircodes) means it's unsuitable for a delivery system.

The only people who seem to be using Eircode to any degree are Government departments. They’d want to. Government departments not using the systems they develop is the equivalent of parents skipping their kids’ nativity play due to its lack of quality.

Mark Griffin, the secretary general of the Department of Communications, told the Public Accounts Committee that the more people in Ireland who get broadband, the more we'll see Eircode being used, "because people have stuff delivered to their houses". Sorry, what? Will Eircode become widely used when someone in Annascaul (K05 F7X8, probably), discovers Amazon? Griffin also "led the implementation of the Government's water reform programme, including the establishment of Irish Water," the Department of Communications website proudly asserts.

Not a virtue

Liam Duggan, the managing director of Eircode, is fond of asking for patience, saying that it took 30 years for postcodes to become commonly used in Britain. Postcodes were first adopted in the UK in 1959, expanding in the mid-1960s, with the scheme pretty much completed in the 1970s. In fact, Dublin's "old" postcodes (the ones everyone still uses) were created in 1917.

So just because Britain took a while to get people to use postcodes over half a century ago, are we to expect similar efficiency in the 21st century? Is that the goal for Eircode: that maybe Eircode will get going as quickly as post-war, pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-mobile, Britain? Come off it. If you're waiting for your car to be serviced in a garage, do you expect the mechanic to say "Give me a minute, it took the Ford Motor Company five years after they were established to introduce the Model T"? The comparison is ridiculous.

Like many Government “innovations”, Eircode was surrounded by the almost impenetrable language of guff. All this talk about “driving efficiencies” and helping with “segmentation” proved to be spoofery. Corporate hyperbole does everything it can to cloak logic. At the time of its launch, in April 2014, Duggan said “Ireland is setting a new world standard”. Standard for what, one wonders.

Everyone connected with Eircode spoke about how great it was going to be, all the while ignoring the fact that the lack of any intelligent design created a system that is illogical to the user. What was the point of spending €38 million on something so few are using? Sadly, we know no one will be taken to task over this. We specialise in rewarding mediocrity and shrugging off failures. Why would anyone be compelled to change that culture of failure when there are no consequences?

  • The original subheading on this column referred to 'An Post's poorly designed postcode system'. An Post has pointed out that it had no role in the design of eircode and that it has no responsibility for monitoring the uptake of eircodes. This was edited on February 13th, 2017.