Q and A | Tim Duggan

Tim Duggan is all about Ireland. He’s Principal, Technology Policy Division, Centre for Management and Organization Development in the Irish Government’s Department of Finance. In that capacity, he’s responsible for the country’s e-government services, including its recent adoption of an e-Cabinet initiative meant to level the mountains of binders that ministers and their staffs haul to Cabinet meetings. Duggan delivered a keynote speech at this year’s Lac Carling Congress and later spoke with CGR writer Laura Eggertson about Ireland’s e-government experience, privacy issues, and e-Cabinet. Excerpts form their conversation follow:

Q. What do you think drove Ireland to become such a leader in e-government?

A. First of all, we recognized early on that exploiting IT to improve the quality of service delivery was critically important. And we were fortunate that our prime minister’s office developed a particular interest in this and consequently developed a partnership with us, the Department of Finance, to develop policies in that area.

We developed action plans, and from the action plans, we developed a funding line. And because we did all of that relatively quickly, over the space of about six-eight months, we actually had an action plan out the door before most countries did. We did it in 1998; the action plan was published in January of 1999.

Q. One of the things that caught our attention was e-cabinet, because that’s so protected and so secret that the idea of putting it online raises security issues. Can you go through how it works and when you started putting that together?

A. We did the initial feasibility study and analysis round about 2000, 2001.

We went to . . . the cabinet project team, which we were on anyway, to get [an] XML tool set, and we highlighted the cabinet process as a possible application that we might like to build with it. When the responses came back in and we chose the tool set that we wanted to use, the very first project we did some trials with was e-cabinet. Those trials worked extremely well . . . so we then went and developed the system for real.

It’s now a centralized system. It’s in the prime minister’s office, where the cabinet secretariat resides. They maintain complete and utter control of it – it is not outsourced in any way whatsoever. The only externals involved are the systems developers who are brought in occasionally to do some tweaking, and the people who supply kit – boxers, routers, switches, dialogues and that sort of thing.

The database is entirely encrypted; the channels we’re using are the government’s private network to protect us; we’re using encryption across those links; and only very limited numbers of people are allowed access to documents that have actually been submitted to government. Up until the time they’ve been submitted to government they’re just drafts, so we’re not that unduly worried about them getting into the public domain.

But once they’re actually submitted to the government, they become highly confidential and therefore the number of people that can physically get near these repositories or logically near these repositories is minimum – very, very low numbers.

Q. How does the software work?

A. At the moment you can draft a memorandum. You can circulate it. Circulation is multiphase; first of all within your own department, so it might go through a second iteration of drafting as a result of that circulation. Second is to get approval to actually officially circulate it across government. Then you circulate it across government and the system allows people to give you observations on the draft and also to give you suggested text changes.

Then you can go through the process all over again where you take all of that on board and you record the minister’s views and you can circulate it again, and then after that you submit it to your minister for approval to be sent to government. So all of that work flow is built into the system.

The authoring tool is essentially Word, but it’s got a whole load of features disabled, and it’s got an XML plug-in, to spin XML out the back end of it, that’s built by the company that built the cabinet system. It’s a product of theirs. It’s called Word Express.

Once it gets submitted . . .it gets cleared by the cabinet secretariat, and the minute it’s cleared by the cabinet secretariat it automatically populates the agenda. It then gets put onto a different server, effectively. The whole layout of the memorandum is structured in such a way that it makes navigation easy. The summary issues associated are in the middle of the screen, other ministers’ views are down the left hand side, the cost implications are down the right hand side.

What isn’t there yet is the briefing. At the moment (the minister) still has to walk in through the door with a whole lot of paper, because we still don’t have the facility on the cabinet system yet.

Q. What has the reaction been?

A. It’s now mandatory. All departments are using it. They have no other way of submitting memoranda to government. That said, it seems to be getting a fine reaction. The cabinet secretariat itself is extremely pleased with the system. It’s taken a great deal of the administrative burden out of their lives, and consequently they can concentrate on a lot more value-added activities.

Q. You have had no security issues with it?

A. We’ve had no leaks that are directly attributable to the system. We don’t expect them either, in the sense that the easiest way to get anything is through a person, not through a computer system.

Q. I was interested in the Personal Public Service number that Ireland gives all its citizens for dealing with the government, and the storing of personal information. The privacy issue is such a burning issue here. How have you found that in terms of public reaction?

A. There isn’t a huge amount of public reaction in Ireland to it. But I think it’s because we haven’t been particularly overt about it. I have a view that you should never go to the public half-cocked on anything. They’ll just eat you alive and you’ll look stupid, and then even the good stuff that emerges from it, you’ll have difficulty getting that into it. So my view is, let’s thrash this out internally first. We’re trying to shape the policy to respect what we think the real (public) issues are. We think that once we do go to the public with this, their privacy is going to be a major issue. Even if they don’t think of it themselves, the media will certainly point it out to them.

In reality, the public information identity dataset has always existed – always and ever. What’s in it? Name, date of birth, correspondence address. Official address. Mother’s maiden name. Date of death. Which in most cases is blank. That’s most of it. And then there’s this number – the personal public service number.

Q. What’s the advantage of dealing with a person across all the government departments just by number? Is that any more efficient than just using a name?

A. The number actually gives (government officials) access to all of that data if they are entitled under the law or allowed to access it. They use that information then to populate their own databases.

It is more efficient. Even though Ireland is a small country of just 4 million people, the repeats and the derivations of names are horrendous. I can give you an example. My father was a postman. One of the town lands – there were four houses in it; farms. The name of the man who owned each farm was Dennis Finbar. Same address. None of them liked each other, or talked to each other. And they weren’t related. Just a fluke. On some databases in government, I’m pretty sure that I’m Timothy – but I call myself Tim. My passport says Tim on it; one of my bank accounts says Timothy. There’s no way for a computer system necessarily to recognize that Timothy and Tim are the same thing, and there are even worse derivations. Because of all of that, the number is extremely efficient and important to have.

Q. Do people care?

A. They do know that we use a number for identifying them because they keep getting asked for it. They were all written to and told that this number was going to be used for these purposes. So they do know. But there’s a very high level of trust of government in Ireland – one of the highest levels in Europe. Well over 80 per cent.

We do have quite stringent data protection law that’s European-based, and we have had it for well over 15 years. As a result of that, the usage of data is very tight – fairly tight. So there isn’t a huge amount of misuse going on of the generation of databases that are known about by the public. Everybody knows that Revenue collects a whole lot of information about you so they can sort out your tax. Everybody knows the Department of Social and Family Affairs collects a whole lot of information about you so that they can assess your entitlement to child benefit and subsequently pay you for that. So they know that databases exist all over the place and they know that the PPS number is used to identify you in all of them. And they know that there are in some instances data transfers going on between government agencies.

The vast majority of people tend not to think about it as much because there is such a tight data protection law. In the event of them having to know anyway, there is recourse through the law. Under the law, they’re entitled to find that. They can just ask. They can ask for copies of all data held about them. 056847

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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