Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Out of Reach

I was at the launch of The Next Leap - Competitive Ireland in the Digital Era this evening in the Institute of International and European Affairs. It is an excellent model of consultation and collaborative thinking - perfect for the subject in hand. I was one of many invited to contribute, by the way, though I didn't for time pressure reasons rather than because of any negativity towards the project.

The primary audience for the report is the Government. This is possibly its biggest flaw. Government in Ireland is more of a barrier to realising the full potential of our digital future rather than a catalyst to achieving it. That said, government can't be ignored (nor can most barriers) so it is wise to at least try and get them to raise the barriers. I wish the authors well (genuinely) for they have set themselves a mighty task.

How great a task is evident from the fiasco that is the Reach Project (a kind of one-stop-shop for citizens to access public services). As reported in the Irish Times today (citing an earlier report from the Comptroller and Auditor General), the Government's attempts to get its own digital strategy in place have been characterised by poor management, long delays and massive budgetary overruns (I know, what's new?). To quote the C&AG report:
Government approval for the development of the Broker was given in May 2000, but neither a budget nor a timetable for the project was set at that time. Reach began to organise and staff up for the revised mandate, and to plan how the Broker might be delivered. It moved through software development stages designed to test the Broker concept (completed by August 2001) and then to develop a prototype of the proposed system (completed by April 2002). At the same time, work was underway to find a partner to build, deploy and operate the Broker. The invitation to tender for provision of those services was issued in July 2002.

The Broker project was reviewed in late 2002, in the light of the responses received from bidders. This led to a scaling back of the proposal. A revised and less ambitious first phase (Broker Version 1) was approved by the Cabinet Committee on the Information Society in May 2003. At that stage, the cost of development of the proposed Broker Version 1 was estimated at around €14 million.

A contract to develop and service the Broker Version 1 was signed in February 2004, with a target to have the system operating by August 2004. Delays in completing the project occurred for a variety of reasons, and the project was finally completed in December 2005. The final expenditure was of the order of €37 million, when all the costs associated with development of the system are included. Ongoing costs are expected to be in the region of €14-15 million a year.
I was part of a group tendering for Broker Version 1 late in 2003. Even then we could smell turkey, and it wasn't because Christmas was coming. Developing a service that nobody wanted and couldn't be delivered sort of seemed like a bad idea at the time. €37 million later my instincts (and those of most everyone else exposed to the project) were confirmed.

And that was the outcome in relation to a simple portal. How anyone expects the Government to actually deliver a joined up digital strategy is beyond me. Okay, things have changed since 2003 but not that much - the C&AG report came out in January this year.

I think the Government (any government) needs to take a Hippocratic Oath before it embarks on any policy initiative: 'first, do no harm'. Maybe then some good will come of their efforts, at a slightly lower price than heretofore. I wish everyone involved in the IIEA initiative every success - and I will try and add my tuppence worth from time to time on the blog they've now set up to move their discussions forward.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see the enquiring minds which made Amarach interesting from the start of the digital change still going. And sadly on the mark on the above. I am now reading the two documents (your twitter on the Government "Strategy" makes a neat point in one line), and will certainly comment on the IIEA's worthwhile initiative (but agree that too much focus on the public sector is not likely to get us anywhere, as see the last decade). The state of "e-Government" and "broadband" in Ireland says it all. But there is the question of the alternatives: are private business (Ireland should have a great chance with so many tech multinationals) and the universities and colleges well-organised either? Much of the old energy is gone from bodies such as the IIA. Keep up the commentary anyway, always interesting.

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