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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 7 Nov 2000

Vol. 525 No. 2

Ceisteanna – Questions. - E-Cabinet Project.

John Bruton


3 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the progress made on developing the e-Cabinet project to bring the benefits of new technologies to the Cabinet process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19245/00]

Since Government approved this initiative on 11 April, I am pleased to report that considerable progress has already been made. A project manager – within my Department – was appointed in April. Funding for the consultancy element was sought from the information society fund and approval in principle has been obtained. A request for tenders under local tendering procedures for phase 1 issued in June. Tenders have been received and evaluated. The Department is now in the process of appointing consultants. Phase 1, which will provide detailed recommendations for the development of the project, should be completed early in the spring.

What is the likely cost of the project in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003?

I will not know the cost for 2002 and 2003 or even for the second half of 2001 until the evaluation takes place. I do not have a figure for the initial cost. I do not think the initial project cost, which involves approximately four months work, will be expensive. There are not many individuals involved but their job is to examine how the present system works to evaluate how it can be changed from a manual to an ICT system and to examine the security procedures in use currently because we are talking about the process of using papers and documents. As soon as that is finished in spring, I envisage the second phase will be costly because it will involve not only the Cabinet secretariat but also all Departments and, indeed, some other agencies.

Will computer terminals be installed in the Cabinet room at the place of each Minister?

Did the Deputy say "replacing each Minister"?

No, at the place of each Minister. In the Government's case it might be an improvement. Will computer terminals with document display facilities be installed at the Cabinet table?

It could well mean that because the objective of the entire project is to try to remove paper and memoranda as completely as possible from the Cabinet room. The project team is working on the basis that that can be done. We will see following the evaluation, but I think it can.

Before the Taoiseach commits himself to this, will he consider not just the technological difficulties but also the psychological effects this might have in so far as if there are terminals at the table people will be in a less collegial setting, each with their own screen and so forth? It will not necessarily lead to the type of discussion that one may need to have at Cabinet. Is assistance being sought before a major capital investment is committed to, to ensure this improves Cabinet Government in its real expression, which is 15 people making a decision, rather than in its theoretical sense, which is the production of masses of documents at the touch of a button even though such documents may not be capable of being read by the people in that setting?

That is precisely what I have said. The project is being set up and it involves looking at and evaluating the entire procedure to ascertain whether it merits change. The Deputy will agree, when looking at modern day electronic processing which is used extensively in Departments for other arrangements, most of the paper involved in the present process could well be eliminated. Discussion will take place but rather than using 30 to 40 page memoranda it would be quite easy to get to the point one wants. Most presentations, which I have seen during interdepartmental discussions where power points are used effectively, eliminate paper and use only slide sheets. The present process is very old fashioned.

There are many assumptions contained in what the Taoiseach says about things being old fashioned. If it works, it works and if does not work, it does not work. I assume the Taoiseach believes that the current Cabinet system of government works. Apart from reducing the amount of paper Ministers have to carry – and if business is properly managed the amount of paper that Minister's have to bring to Cabinet with them will not be that great, anyway – what are the other benefits that will be delivered by this project?

The unique character of Cabinet, which is a forum for Ministers to continue to meet in person to discharge their collective responsibility, is not what we are talking about. If there are 25 items on an agenda which would cover perhaps 500 or 600 pages, is the most effective and efficient way of having that information to carry it from A to Z where people cannot access it quickly? With new technology, people can access a memorandum under a specific heading far more quickly than by using paper-based files. We see that happening every day in a matter of seconds. If it is not efficient, more effective or time saving and useful, phase one will show that to be the case, but it would be extraordinary if that was not the case. We have seen how the system was operated both here and during the DIRT hearings. There are many examples and it is already being used in the committees of the House. At this stage, we are looking at the Cabinet project during its first stage to see if information communication technology can be operated more effectively, given the unique character of collective responsibility in Cabinet and the security aspect involved. Next spring we will see if that is the case, or not.

Is the Taoiseach familiar with Parkinson's law which states that work expands to fill the time available? Is he not aware of the risk, therefore, that documentation may expand to fill the technology available? As a result of this, Ministers may be overloaded with vast amounts of material which is not on paper but is nominally on file. The sort of discipline that should be undertaken by officials in preparing crisp, short memoranda for Ministers will be lost as people just load stuff on to the computer in a fashion that does not do justice to the Cabinet process, or is not necessarily fair to Ministers who should be able to make decisions on net points that are presented in a net fashion.

As Deputy Bruton knows, the current high standards of memoranda, giving a short summary on the front of the file, would not change. A decision will be made as to whether they will remain in a written or IT format. Let us see how it will happen. I think it will prove to be a useful enough exercise. We discussed this last June. It would be unlikely for us to move in one fell swoop from a totally paper-based system to an information communication technology system. The system can be improved from where it now stands, however. I notice that most Ministers and Department officials are already using overhead projectors and power points in their presentations. Compared to what existed five years ago, the system has changed dramatically.

Does the Taoiseach think the implementation of this new communication technology system will cut down on the need for advisers in Government, or does he think it could possibly expand the need for them?

It might expand the information communication technology advisers in the first place, since most Departments do not have too many of them.

A final supplementary question from Deputy Bruton.

I was waiting for something there, but it did not happen.

Testing the waters.

As almost all parties in this House are likely to be in Government at some time or other, would the Taoiseach agree that a project of this nature, which affects Cabinet Government, ought to be the subject of some consultation with parties in Opposition so that we will have an opportunity of seeing what is envisaged?

I would be delighted to do that.