Appointing a Government CIO or internet tsar would help deliver the digital economy
A strong CIO overseeing all State IT investment is needed, says Data Electronics' Maurice Mortell
ANYONE can see how the internet economy is going to dominate the future of commerce. In many ways, it already does. Many of us cannot conceive of any other way of buying plane tickets, renewing car tax or booking a hotel room.
But it goes deeper than that. The digital economy should transcend all central government actions, from procurement to education, e-payments and information and services. The citizen's interaction with the State from the cradle to the grave should be electronically-enabled, from registering birth certs to filing taxes.
The internet cloud represents a fantastic opportunity for the State to digitally serve our citizens, cost-effectively and efficiently. But the march of government and technology in Ireland has been a bumpy one. Disasters from the e-voting machine debacle to the controversial HSE Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems (PPARS) project, which began as a €9m SAP project in 1997 and went over-budget to the tune of €195m by 2005.
Along with the disputes over public sector pay, all of this is contributing to a reluctance in the public sector to be brave and innovative, as Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD pointed out recently. The Data Protection Commissioner's report last week also revealed shocking deficiencies in the public sector in terms of managing data - everything from lost laptops with citizen information to paternity tests being sent to the wrong addresses.
What is clearly needed is a strong arm, a State CIO who will see visionary infrastructure investments occur within budget and adhered to the highest standards. Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD in October confirmed that the State is on the lookout for such a CIO, while last month Minister Ryan said the cabinet is keen to progress the appointment of such a CIO as soon as possible.
"What is needed is a good CIO who will be responsible for how public services procure IT. But not only that, we need a co-ordinated strategic sense of direction around how we ourselves use ICT."
One man who couldn't agree more is Maurice Mortell, CEO of Data Electronics, an indigenous data-centre company with a track record exceeding 30 years. Data Electronics operates data centres in Dublin, including a €25m facility it opened last year in Ballycoolin.
Mortell says Ireland needs to transform itself if it is to continue to be an export-oriented nation. Key to this is digital infrastructure, and central government needs to be seen as a leader, not a follower.
"If digital infrastructure is key to our economic future, central government hasn't taken it up at the level to which I think they should have taken it up. If central government were to embrace it properly, we would have a civil service that would be able to push this through as a plan for the rest of the country, but I don't think that's there at the moment.
"It's there in certain pockets. In some places it's excellent. We have really good ideas around how to deliver services," he says, pointing to stand-out projects such as the Revenue Online Service and the Motor Tax website.
But, says Mortell, with the internet cloud being the arbiter for many future services from central government that would in turn help raise the standards in the private sector. Over the next 18 months someone is going to have to take control of how future technology and IT-based projects are delivered.
"If and when central government embraces IT completely as an overall organisational unit, it would be a lot easier to have it deployed out through the system with regards to education, universities, even out to the homes.
"The principle of having a CIO or Ireland's CTO is a good one because somebody will have ownership for delivering a strategy rather than it just being under the umbrella of one of the departments. If they are going to do it, it needs to be split out under different headings - your infrastructure, your use of the internet, education, investment in content and digital media that drives into the whole area.
"I do think that - not by design - we have someone acting in that role, but it isn't their main function. However, they are trying to deliver a more centralised view as to how central government uses IT and applications and get the efficiencies out of doing that as well."
In many countries, particularly the US and the UK, a digital tsar, or an internet advisory committee such as Digital Britain, has a key role to play in defining nationwide digital objectives. I ask Mortell does Ireland actually need a digital tsar or to establish an advisory board?
"Yes, as an overseer it would be ideal. It probably has to be a senior civil servant who has a very good understanding of technology, or you bring in an outside person to take on that functional role.
"Having a ministerial ship or department for the area makes sense because it might give it more clout, but as regards the delivery it has got to be in civil servants' time, not just ministerially driven."
This leads us to the obvious absence of an overriding national plan for next-generation digital networks across Ireland. Mortell says cohesion is needed here.
"We see an awful lot of activity within the telecoms sector in Ireland. We see all the players that enter the market. We see the activity and there's a lot of vibrancy."
"Other providers have started to deliver national capabilities - obviously E-net has a good market share at the moment, albeit as a wholesaler to the telecoms market. It has 90 towns with metropolitan area networks (MANs) and it is going to deliver more capability nationwide. ESB Networks can link up a lot of that infrastructure. Backhaul is still an issue, but it's not as bad as it was; prices have come down.
"Within the towns themselves they are still looking at a lot of last mile issues of how do you get into the last mile - next-generation networks, mobile, or whatever," he explains.
Building the digital economy in Ireland is as much about skills as it is infrastructure. Mortell says we need to get serious about the skill sets of tomorrow.
"We need to be generating these skill sets from an engineering perspective, a business perspective, a science perspective and from an innovation perspective. The education system has to be able to cater for that and there's got to be a willingness to support innovation and entrepreneurship.
"The fear I have is a lot of those people are going to be gone in the next five or six years because we're not going to be able to generate the type of environment we need to support them."
To watch a video interview with Maurice Mortell, go to www.digital21.ie.
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