Rolling out eGovernment US style – are there lessons for Ireland?
17 October 2012 14:34
In Ireland, the process of rolling out eGovernment has been relatively slow. While there have been some notable successes in online service delivery, such as the Revenue on Line Service and the Online Motor Tax operation, generally the pace of utilising new digital platforms to deliver an enhanced customer experience has been moderate. And of course the benefits of increased reliance on eGovernment not just lead to faster and more direct services for citizens, but there are also real advantages in delivering a more efficient and cost effective service. New technologies are also key to ensuring greater engagement with citizens and can enhance their participation in policy development and implementation of new programmes.
Much of the focus in Ireland over the last five years has been justifiably on reducing expenditure and increasing efficiencies in the delivery of public services. The unsustainable level of public expenditure and the need to get the Exchequer deficits under control, particularly since Ireland entered a programme with the ECB/EU/IMF, have firmly placed cost containment and controls in the spotlight. While some of the expenditure reduction initiatives may have led to increased efficiencies (largely through headcount reductions), the primary focus driving these programmes has been cost control and not a desire to be innovative in the delivery of public services. In a sense, innovation as a key plank of public sector reform is nice to aspire to, but regarded as hard to achieve in a time of tight fiscal controls.
Developments in the US are perhaps helpful in demonstrating that new and innovative ways of delivering public services and engaging citizens do not necessarily require a big public purse and can be delivered in genuinely co-operative initiatives involving public private partnerships and NGOs.
Kentucky as example
In some States in the US the delivery of new eGovernment services has been developed by State Governments in partnership with commercial enterprises that provide a suite of online services as self-funded projects. For example, in Kentucky a collaborative venture between the State Government and Kentucky Interactive, a local subsidiary of NIC, a national provider of Government portals, online services and payment processing facilities, has developed Kentucky.gov, the official website/web portal of the State.
The service operates on a basis that regards eGovernment as everyday government rather than electronic Government and aims to mainstream the electronic delivery of public services. What is remarkable about the arrangement is that the various services that have been developed and delivered on line have not cost the State tax dollars. This is achieved through a self-funded business model where an efficiency fee is applied to users of a select number of business facing services. In other words, citizens pay for the convenience of using a more efficient online service, rather than conducting their business in a traditional paper based format. The efficiency fee is typically applied to services that are in regulated industries that require a faster service, such as the legal, transportation, banking, insurance and licensed professions. People can still elect to do their business in a traditional manner, or can pay for the privilege of availing of a more efficient online eGovernment service. The fee is added to the basic licence fee and expressed as an online convenience fee. For example, for the renewal of driving licences the fee is two percent of the licence charge.
While such an approach might seem almost heretical in an Irish context, where there is a drive to nudge citizens to the limited online public services available on the basis that it is more efficient, the model appears to work in the US. The self-funded model has been customised by 27 US States to save millions of dollars per year by streamlining processes and reducing costs. It allows States to build eGovernment services without a budgetary impact or additional voted expenditure.
The self-funded model not only assists with the development of new services that attract the efficiency fee, but importantly the model also provides a sustainable funding stream to support the development and delivery of other online services for citizens, over 90 over of eGovernment services in Kentucky developed by the PPP vehicle are consequently provided to citizens with no efficiency fee and at no cost to the State. From the State’s perspective, it seems like a win-win. The new technologies are developed by a PPP arrangement at no direct cost to the State, which retains ownership of all data, oversees all eGovernment project priorities and approves all fees. A review of the Kentucky Government portal (www.kentucky.gov) and some related sites (onestop.ky.gov) highlight the extent to which the State has benefited from this arrangement.
Code for America
Another novel concept has been a move by a non-Governmental organisation, Code for America, (www.codeforamerica.org) to provide assistance to municipal governments with the development of web based applications that can assist to “fix government”. This movement aims to work with local government in cities to develop simple applications that can either support the delivery or accessibility of services to citizens and be more efficient, participative and transparent. The problems concerned are referred to Code for America by the relevant local authority and a fellow or intern with ICT skills is seconded to the municipal authority to assist with the development of a new application to help improve services around the deficiency identified.
Some of the examples of work that Code for America has done with municipal governments indicate the simplicity but effectiveness behind the initiatives. For example, in Philadelphia there was a concern by the planning authorities that consultation processes around new local plans were not delivering the level of engagement and feedback required to inform the plans. To address this, Code for America developed Textizen (www.textizen.com), a clever application that combines old technology (Posters) with texting so that targeted questions could be put in certain areas with a text number to invite a particular response. It is really simple, but effective at targeting responses and increasing the level of citizen engagement. The enigmatic founder of Code for America, Jen Pahlka, commented that while the solutions developed by the interns or fellows might not be as technologically perfect as a solution prepared by a leading ICT company after years of research and spend, generally the solutions work and address the problem that has been identified by the municipal authority for fixing. “Perfection is the enemy of good” she commented and the experience of her organisation and approach in helping to improve the delivery of public services to citizens through such programmes demonstrates that the approach is delivering results and attracting attention. And what is really appealing is that the applications developed are Open Source Projects which Code for America strive to adapt to other cities in the US.
In Boston, the City Council is also leading a new and innovative approach to delivering local services through digital channels which are being led by the Mayors Office of New Urban Mechanics in the Council (www.newurbanmechanics.org). The City government has encouraged the development of a range of web based applications that can improve the efficiency and responsiveness of local government services. City Mayor Thomas M. Merino, who has been associated with ensuring that the nuts and bolts of local government work, encouraged new structures to deliver innovation and change in service delivery. Many of the initiatives that the Boston City Council have developed came from low budget ICT projects which were brought to the Council by innovators, the typical project required small amounts of funding to assess their viability, which tended to overcome some of the procurement and project management blocks that often plague new ICT innovations by public authorities. One application, Citizen Connect, aims to help citizens to act as the eyes and ears of the city authority by reporting problems that need repairing. A second application, Speed Bump, automatically collects information on potholes and road surfaces as people drive and reports them to the relevant authorities with locations identified through the phones GPS, a works order is then generated to repair the road concerned. Other applications included programmes aimed at increasing participation in urban democracy, a new initiative to encourage high street shopping and initiatives aimed at assisting with education through smart cards designed to both secure library access and facilitate transport between municipal libraries on the public transport system.
The push towards enhanced service provision online has also increased the level of transparency on the provision of public services with a strong emphasis on eGovernment equating to open Government. The extent to which these levels of transparency have taken hold would be shocking in an Irish context. Some States and municipal authorities are now at a stage where all relevant salary details for each named employee are listed on the organisations website. Some even include the amount that the employee has received in the year to date. Similarly full details of public contracts are listed as well, again the Kentucky State Government’s Transparency Portal (www.opendoor.ky.gov) is instructive as is the Massachusetts Open Checkbook for the State Government ( www.opencheckbook.itd.state.ma.us ) which not only lists the spend of Departments, but also the salaries of serving officials and the pensions of retirees!
Some eGovernment advocates believe that such transparency is not prurient but is part of the collateral that the State must expect for encouraging a more open dialogue between the Government and the Governed. Jen Pahlka puts it succinctly that she sees transparency as a motivator for efficiency and better service delivery. And ironically most of the officials whose salary details are listed in minute detail on their employers websites actually now accept this as a normal aspect to working in a public sector role.
The approach witnessed in the US to the development of eGovernment is in large part attributable to diminished barriers between the public and private sector. There appears to be far greater mobility between employment in the public and private sector and a greater capacity for the public sector to absorb new people at middle and senior level than perhaps we have witnessed on this side of the Atlantic, at least until lately. There is also a willingness on the part of the government authorities at both State and local levels to reach out to the private sector to work on a collaborative basis to improve service delivery and achieve efficiencies through wider use of web based technology.
In instances where the State or local government has embraced an ambitious programme of eGovernment and innovation in the delivery of public services, this is typically with the fully engaged political support of the relevant elected officer, whether that is a Mayor or Governor. And in such a context it would seem that the officials seem more comfortable in taking even slightly more tentative steps towards innovation which might have some risks of project failure or modest cost exposure. But failure did not appear to be seen as a negative in terms of developing new applications and services, rather as a necessary part of the process of bringing new services and channels of delivery to citizens.
Of course one aspect that is common between Ireland and the US is the digital divide and the need to ensure that service provision is not focused only at sectors of society that have means or capacity to access and navigate the web, whether through Smartphones or otherwise.
High speed broadband availability is a key enabler and Ireland may have some catching up to do in that regard. But as William Lehr of MIT makes clear, the future is with pervasive computing – always on and everywhere connected. Adapting Government services to meet this challenge remains a key priority for Ireland. The experience in the US indicates that even in times of reduced resources there are innovative models that can be employed to ensure that Government and citizens at least stay on top of if not ahead of the curve.
Garrett Fennell recently took part in a Boston College Irish Institute Programme on eGovernance which was funded by the US State Department. The views expressed in this article are his own. For further information on Irish Institute programmes see (www.bc.edu/centers/irish/institute)