The talk below is one which I was invited to give for this morning’s (18th January) Transforming Public Services Conference on eGovernment, organised by the Department of the Taoiseach. There were about 200 participants, in Dublin Castle, representing many sectors of the public service nationwide. The Department of the Taoiseach has organised a series of such events to encourage best practice and sharing across the pubic service.
What is the role of Government ? What should the Government be doing ? What is the responsibility of Government leaders ?
While these questions preoccupy most of us at the moment, dominate the traditional media and airwaves, and fill much of our social media traffic, this morning we have simpler questions to address: What is the role of e-Government ? What should e-Government deliver ? What is the responsibility of e-Government leaders, strategists, and project managers ?
I believe that the primary role of e-Government is to catalyse the public service, so that it can achieve its mission of best serving the public at large. In my view, e-Government is thus a tool, a facilitation, and an enabler, rather than an end in itself. It is not the responsibility of e-Government to deliver the best service to the public at large: rather it is the responsibility of the public service and Government to do so, using tools which e-Government offer. e-Government does not abrogate the public sector from public service; e-Government is not a replacement for responsibility, professionalism and wise use of the public purse; e-Government can only act as a servant to the public service to enable the public service to best serve the public.
The primary customers of e-Government are thus the public service. An online application system helping the public apply for education grants is great if it enables the administration to process grant applications even more professionally, courteously, timely and efficiently. An online revenue system is of high value only if it enables the revenue staff to process tax related information even more professionally, courteously, timely and efficiently. An online census system is of high value only if it enables the census staff to respond to census enquiries even more professionally, courteously, timely and efficiently.
An e-Government system never replaces the obligation to professionally serve the public. Those responsible for e-Government strategies should thus continually seek the input and feedback from their customers, the public servants: the question always is “how can we help you do your job even more professionally ?”
If e-Government is primarily about catalysing the public service, how does this play into the themes of the “smart” economy ? By “smart” economy I mean an emphasis on innovation in all sectors of the economy and especially those which can drive earnings from overseas. How does e-Government drive foreign earnings ? How does e-Government create employment, and indeed should e-Government even be expected to create jobs ? In fact, should e-Government even be innovative ?
The public sector is a major procurer of products and services from the private sector. Can and should public procurement be used in catalysing a “smart” economy ? Public procurement in Ireland must abide by EU State Aid rules, and using public procurement purely to favour indigenous firms and companies operating in Ireland is inappropriate. We may seek a “smart” economy in Ireland, but we cannot use public procurement policy to target firms in Ireland.
Furthermore, stimulation of the smart economy should require innovation: creating new products and services which have never previously existed. If we are going to drive foreign earnings, we need to create new products and services in Ireland for the global market. On the other hand, if we are going to use taxpayers money to acquire and build e-Government solutions, then almost the very last thing we want to do is to procure new products and services which have never previously existed. On the contrary, to prudently and efficiently use taxpayers money, we want to adopt “off-the-shelf” pre-existing solutions already well tried from elsewhere. Our build-out policies for e-Government procurement and systems should rightly re-invigorate and re-energise the Irish public service, but almost certainly are unlikely to result in a new innovation for export from Ireland to the global market.
By contrast, I believe that innovation is about risk taking, to create new products and services for the global market. Risk-taking in e-Government systems procurement by contrast is unwise. Almost everyone in our public service is only all too well aware of the Dail Public Accounts Committee. Brave is the public servant who risks procuring a novel but un-proven solution over a less ambitious but well tested and well tried solution from elsewhere. Finally of course, we have had very visible failures of public procurement, including in IT systems, which have in many cases severely dampened political and public enthusiasm for some projects.
The dichotomy of stimulating innovation for the export-driven “smart” economy, and simultaneously safely and efficiently enhancing the public sector by e-Government systems, pre-occupied several of us on last year’s Innovation Taskforce. We strongly believed that altering the mandate and goals of public procurement would be unwise: public procurement should in general reduce risk, whereas innovation is inherently riskful.
So, the Innovation Taskforce took a different approach. We asked whether there are specific challenges which would have an obvious direct benefit to the Irish economy, and indeed to Irish society at large ? These may be riskful challenges, but have enormous potential benefit if they can be delivered. If they are to stimulate innovation, then such challenges should not already have a solution. That is, they would be different from normal Irish procurement projects: there would be no pre-existing solution anywhere on the planet, and R&D would be needed to build a solution.
But further, one of the main goals of an Irish smart economy is that it should be foreign earnings driven. Thus any of these new category of challenges should have an export potential. Thus, they should be such that not only is R&D needed to derive a solution in the Irish context, but that that solution should have a foreign earnings potential and ideally represent a global opportunity.
Finally, a key strategy for the Irish smart economy is collaboration: between academia and industry, within industry itself including in particular the interplay between indigenous and multinational companies, and across industry sectors by converging technologies. Thus any of these new categories of challenges should also create an opportunity for clusters of companies to collaborate together, with academic involvement as appropriate.
The Innovation Taskforce called these new category of challenges “Flagships“. The Taskforce recommended that each Flagship should have a clearly identifiable direct societal impact in Ireland; should not have an existing solution anywhere on the planet; should have global export potential since many other jurisdictions as well as Ireland may have very similar challenges; should enable an open collaborative cluster to form, in which different companies can all add value to a common technology platform so as to build a solution; and would be funded in part by the Irish State to provide a demonstrable use-case and verifiable proof of concept.
The Flagship mechanism is, I understand, being progressed by the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment in conjunction with other Departments. In my view, it may take some time before the first Flagship calls are issued, and of course there may be policy changes introduced by a new administration probably later this year.
In my view, there are other approaches which e-Government leaders, strategists and project managers can take to stimulate innovation in the “smart” economy yet still within a manageable risk to the public service. The basic tactic is to routinely electronically publish, for free access, chosen public sector data in formats which can be readily re-processed by software applications built in the private sector. Such data must of course abide by the obligations on data privacy and anonymity. If such data can be routinely put in the public domain, updated or even streamed live, then it make stimulate innovative new applications by the private sector. Such data could include, just as an example, traffic analysis, resource load factors (such as hospital beds), and various mapping information.
There is of course the question of whether it is right that private sector companies could build and financially profit from new products and services based on public sector supplied data paid for by all taxpayers. There is further the question of how much it may cost in public sector staff time, computing resources and opportunity costs to regularly publish data managed and held by the public sector. What rights should private sector companies have to public data provided by public service, and who is going to pay for providing it ? My own view is that the public service should freely publish selected data on a best effort basis, within the resourcing constraints which it undoubtedly has. If and when a private sector company does build a new commercial service using data from one or more public sector sources, then undoubtedly that company will need reliable and consistent data sources. At this point, a negotiation will occur in which the public sector agencies concerned can contract to reliably provide the data at a cost and for a fee to that commercial user, as opposed to the free but ad-hoc and best-effort basis in the past.
Let me summarise. The public service should and must serve the public at large professionally, efficiently and courteously. e-Government systems should enable the public service to do so. e-Government systems sourced via public procurement will, and should, avoid the risk inherent in unproven solutions. Nevertheless there are initiatives which can allow risk-averse e-Government projects to complement the riskful “smart” economy. The Innovation Taskforce “flagship” challenges are one initiative; best-effort free-to-access publishing of data streams is another, when this can be subsequently followed by commercial licensing.
e-Government leaders, strategists and project managers already have onerous responsibility to their user communities. The “smart” economy adds yet further demands, but I believe that innovative thinking can address them.