During the week, my colleague Simon Coveney introduced a Private Members Motion on e-Government. This motion was aimed at highlighting the failures in this area to date, but more importantly to stress the importance of this area of government interaction and to propose a number of innovations in this area. In a welcome sign, the government accepted the motion, and hopefully will follow this motion up with concrete action.
Increasing public access to government services is something which I strongly support and I was pleased to make a contribution to the debate which is below.
I commend Deputy Coveney on tabling this motion. It is not a sexy one and probably will not generate a huge amount of media interest but, nonetheless, it is important. It is important for our economy, future competitiveness and if we are serious about making Ireland a world leader in technology and economic competitiveness.
Regarding the Government’s e-programme to date, as Deputy Coveney mentioned, there were 161 pilot projects, of which only 74 were delivered on time and 20% of them were over budget. There were a few disastrous projects such as PPARS and e-voting. It is important to realise this is not so much a failure of policy or technology but one of oversight. It is easy to criticise and concentrate on failures such as that of PPARS, which was seen to be a disaster, and the e-voting project, which did not work out, but the risk of doing so is for us to be afraid or unprepared to press ahead with e-Government. There may be a temptation politically to stay away from that area for a while. However, I urge the Government not to do that. It should build on some of the successes such as the Revenue on-line service and e-tenders and push ahead with the e-Government agenda. It should take the advice given in the OECD report yesterday, which made two valid recommendations on e-Government. It stated that budget frameworks are needed to facilitate prioritisation and reallocation of spending. It also states that a renewed emphasis is needed on the role of IT and e-Government in strengthening information and sharing an integrated service delivery. It also states another valid point, namely, that fragmentation of responsibility for different elements of e-Government has meant that the full potential of ICT has not been realised by public sector organisations for citizens. That is a key point. It is not the concept that has failed but the oversight of it.
I will refer to some real life examples. As one who has spent most of the past few years working in the health service, when we talk about IT in the health service, we tend to think of PPARS, which unfortunately did not work out. However, many other systems have not been tried but should be. If a patient from Cork presents in an accident and emergency department in Blanchardstown hospital, a doctor cannot access his or her records from his or her GP in Cork or the hospital he or she attended in Cork. If a patient attends the National Maternity Hospital and a doctor is concerned that he or she may be anaemic and even though he or she may have had a blood test in Beaumont Hospital yesterday, the doctor cannot get access to that test result because none of the computers in the hospitals talks to each other, so to speak. GP surgeries, which are quite advanced in IT compared with many other countries, are poorly interlinked with hospital services.
Life and death issues are involved in this sector. For example, a doctor who treats a person who presents in a casualty department, having had an X-ray in another casualty department, cannot check that X-ray. However, the technology exists to do that. It is called PAX. It enables one to go on-line and check an X-ray that was taken in another hospital at an earlier date. It is a shame that we do not have that technology here.
In America, whose health service we often criticise, doctors can access patients’ ECG records. They carry around a small disc which contains their medical information, including their ECG record. A person who has had a heart attack has a different ECG and if that person presents with chest pain and a doctor carries out an ECG on him or her, which involves the attaching of electrodes on the heart, the doctor does not know whether those changes are new or old without seeing the patient’s old ECG record, which can take several days. Therefore, the doctor does not know whether there is a need to intervene. These are simple life-saving measures that can be taken, if the will exists to drive such advances. We need to talk about the real benefits for people in advancing to the next stages in the IT society.
I produced a Fine Gael discussion paper, entitled Service First, a few weeks ago. We carried out a survey of 100 or more Government offices. Among key findings of that survey were the fact that less than half of Government offices that serve the public are open 39 hours a week and only 10% are open at the weekend or even of an evening. That is a great shame.
Perhaps one of the best ways we can make services more available to people is by putting them on-line. As Deputy Coveney mentioned, there are many obvious ways that can be done. In the case of student grants, there is not a student in the country who does not have an e-mail address or web access and students should be able to apply for their student grant on-line.
It is not that difficult. Such a programme could be easily introduced. One of the interns in one of our offices could probably design that programme.
The same principle applies to planning observations. Living in north Dublin in a rapidly developing constituency, planning is my number one local issue. I have to go through the rigamarole on every single occasion of printing a letter to send to the authority. I do everything by e-mail. The only time I have to print a letter is when I need to submit a planning observation and fill in a cheque for the fee. That procedure belongs to a different century. I should be able to e-mail the submission and pay the fee by credit card or by account, but I cannot. There is no good reason that is the case. That is the procedure in place on the small level of the process. However, on the bigger level, there is no reason one cannot submit planning applications on-line. On Fingal County Council website one can examine in detail all planning applications, drawings, photo montages and check every single aspect of that planning application, but an application cannot be submitted on-line. An applicant has to print a hard copy of an application, complete it and submit it to the council and then give in a disc with the details on it. These practices would make one demented. In many ways local authorities are introducing de facto e-Government in the absence of the legislative framework to do it de jure.
That is a real shame. We must begin to reflect modern lifestyles in that regard.
I travel a lot overseas and when I visit countries such as Denmark, Norway, Singapore and the Netherlands, I feel like I am in a modern country but when I come back to Ireland, I do not feel like I am in a modern country anymore. I feel I am in a country that wanted to be modern ten years ago or was modern then but which has become very complacent. Our wealth and the fact that we had a reasonably good economy until recently has meant that we allowed ourselves to fall behind and become very arrogant.
As a country, we should be aiming to be number one again. We should be aiming to be ahead of the curve and not just at the EU average. We should aspire to be the most competitive country in the world, the country that spends the most on information technology and research and development and to be the world leader. That is why this motion is important. We want Ireland to be a technology hub, a silicone island, and that means putting to the fore Government policy issues such as e-Government, e-commerce, the transition to e-payments, the roll-out of fibre optics and investment in information technology at all levels of education, not just in the computer rooms in schools. That is why I am glad to support this motion and commend it to the House.