Friday, 26 March 2010

e-Public Service?

I’m a gadget freak. Despite what some people will say it’s not just a boy thing but I am a good example of someone who loves a useful bit of technology. Note that word “useful” though. Despite what certain people close to me (you know who you are) say I like gadgets to have a purpose rather than just as a toy.

Of course it helps if the gadget is cute. The Apple iPhone for instance is utterly gorgeous. Now that we can get hold of the latest 3GS model I don’t see why anyone who can afford one would buy anything else. Easy to use, incredibly powerful, it does everything from surf the web, play music, play free games, update your Facebook page, record meetings, get weather forecasts, take pictures and video, see maps of where exactly you are, the list goes on and on. And of course, it’s an Apple product, so if you buy one you will instantly become charismatic, charming and sexually irresistible. I know this, I have an iPhone myself as well as a MacBook so I must be astonishingly attractive. I must say it’s very good of people to keep it so well hidden.

I’m boring you with all of this just as a way of saying that I’m not against technology. Technology can be great and can do useful things. It’s just not the answer, in itself, to any of life’s problems.

In the Daily News late last week there was a story entitled “e-government strategy formulation on process”. No, I don’t know how you can be “on process” either. It reported on a briefing given by a senior public servant at a council meeting regarding “e-government”. The official apparently said that:
“Government is in the process of developing the national e-government strategy for the period of 2010-2016”
and that this is:
“a progressive e-government programme as a way of accelerating the delivery of the national information communication technology policy”.
Considering the benefits of this project, she said that:
“e-government had a lot of benefits that included efficiency whereby service delivery would be faster than before. Also, she said e-government was transparent, cost effective and would assist in the consistency of service delivery”
I have a problem with all of this. Actually I have several. Firstly that’s all meaningless, consultancy woffle. It’s amazing how many words can be used to say so little.

Then there’s one of my main irritations in life. People confusing Government and the Public Service. The Government are those people we elected to Parliament who rule us, who approve laws, direct the nation as a whole and who work hard to improve our lives. No, don’t bother commenting.

The Public Service on the other hand are the people you and I encounter every day. Whether they’re traffic police, nurses in public hospitals or the person renewing our driving licence or Omang, they are the Public Service. They’re the ones actually serving the public. The so-called e-government project should actually be called the e-Public Service project.

Before I started criticising the whole business of “e-government” I should begin by declaring an interest. I know it sounds like a confession but here we go. I work with the Public Service. Not as an employee but I’ve been engaged by them many times to do various things. One thing I’ve learned in my time with them is they’re a very mixed group of people. I think we all know this but there are, in fact, working in the Public Service, some profoundly talented people, people with intelligence, imagination and a tremendous work ethic. They are people who understand that their job is no different to their friends who work in banks or insurance companies. They exist solely to serve their customers.

Unfortunately I think we all know that there also exists within the Public Service another group of people who do their very best to keep themselves hidden away from gaze, doing as little as they can other than taking the money at the end of the month.

This, I think is part of the problem with “e-government”. Throwing technology, web sites and “portals” at a system that is already flawed isn’t going to help anyone. The technology is neither the cause nor the solution to the problem of service delivery in the Public Service. The problem AND the solution are the people and they way they operate. Fix those things and THEN you can think of spending lots of money technologising things.

I also think that currently “e-government” is enormously off target. How many people will truly benefit from it? Some Ministries have already begun to offer various forms for download from the web which is useful but how much more do we actually need? Will anything else actually help the people that matter most, the people we need to raise out of poverty? No.

My guess is that too many Public Servants have been to presentations by big IT companies, have spent too much time “benchmarking” in the countries we like to compare ourselves with, that are in fact diametrically different to us, and have fallen for the line that spending tens of millions on technology is the answer to our problems. Well it’s not true. They’re just expensive toys that benefit, if anyone, a tiny proportion of the population and I’m even sure how they would benefit.

I think that particularly in times of financial hardship there are better things to spend taxpayer’s money on, don’t you?

No comments: