Ceisteanna – Questions. - Electronic Government.

Denis Naughten

Question:

9 Mr. Naughten asked the Taoiseach the procedures in place in his Department to deal with e-mail queries and electronic correspondence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6750/01]

E-mails to the Department are replied to as quickly as possible and in accordance with the quality customer service standards for my Department as set out in our customer action plan. As part of these standards, my Department aims to provide a substantive response to 70% of correspondence within 15 working days of receipt and in the case of the Government press service, within seven working days. Where it is not possible to issue a full reply within 15 working days, it is my Department's policy to advise the correspondent as to when it will be possible to issue such a response. In practice, however, most e-mail queries received by the webmaster in my Department are responded to on the same day.

Is the Taoiseach aware of an article in the March edition ofMagill which highlighted an e-mail sent to all Departments, to which just one Cabinet Minister replied? Does he believe this is inefficient given that the Government has already spent £30 million developing the e-Government project?

I am aware of the article inMagill. I read the article on this matter in the Evening Herald on 27 February. In that case the biographical details sought were on the website but there was an oversight in replying to the e-mail. It was believed the facts were already on the website but the e-mail should have been replied to. There are now approximately 24,000 or 25,000 e-mails sent per year, almost 6,000 per quarter. The website is being redesigned to tighten up the procedures, many of which existed when only a few hundred were sent each year. Electronic mail is now widely used and the policy is to answer as many queries as possible within 15 days, which is not always possible. The website is being redesigned to make the system more workable for the staff concerned.

While I accept the Taoiseach's point, does it not give a certain impression in relation to the development of e-commerce and e-Government if responses are not given as quickly as possible? Is it acceptable, given that £30 million has been spent on the e-Government project, that five Departments have no formal policy on the use of e-mail and the Internet?

The Information Society Commission set down the ground rules in this regard, which are being followed. All the Departments are working with their e-strategies and action programmes to deliver this. The quality customer service lays down the procedures for answering e-mails, including targets that should be set for answering them. All arms of Government are reaching out in this respect. There is a long list of developments across the public service covering the e-Government and e-Cabinet projects, on which I answered questions previously. These were cleared last April and we are working on them. All those developments are having an effect. I am not saying the system is perfect, but officials are working to make the e-public service broker system more efficient. It will require a fair amount of resources and effort to make it perfect, and that will take some years to achieve.

Under the electronic signatures agreement the Taoiseach signed with the former President Clinton and in relation the point the Taoiseach made about his website, is he aware that his signature can be downloaded from his website? Does he consider that is acceptable? I am sure his signature could be used for other purposes, including signing blank cheques.

I did that; I did not need a website.

Those signatures were not downloaded.

Good security mechanisms are in place to ensure security in that respect is as tight as possible.

Does the Taoiseach propose to carry out an audit on the progress to date not only in his Department but in other Departments and in the public service generally on the level of training available to public servants and Ministers on how to carry out business on the Internet and through e-mail? Is he satisfied that more than a year can elapse between the delivery of equipment and the provision of training to secretarial assistants, which indicates that considerable time is wasted and resources are not being properly used to provide training in this area?

One of the difficulties is that a large number of the people, when they reach a high standard in the public service, are recruited by outside bodies at very substantial salaries. We have lost many of the good people who were trained in the use of the system. Training provision, the training models in place and the out side companies engaged in that work have improved greatly.

I have a long list of what the information society has done, which is set out in its booklets and is on its website. It is an impressive list and it is also related to the customer action plans in the Departments and State agencies for dealing with these matters.

The Deputy is right that technology in this area is constantly improving. Since the guidelines on technology were published in 1998, the equipment and the ability to use it has improved considerably. While it is not easy to keep abreast of those improvements by way of staff training, an enormous effort is being made by the Information Society Commission, in terms of its advice and its various groups involved in training inside and outside my Department and on the new website, on which an outside group is advising, as that speeds up matters. Many private sector companies are engaged in this kind of work and the system is working relatively well.

The Taoiseach referred to improvements, but I asked two specific questions. Does he propose to carry out an audit to measure the extent of the improvements he mentioned, and is it satisfactory – even if it an improvement – that more than a year may elapse between a civil servant taking delivery of equipment and being trained in its use? Does he declare that to be an improvement?

In my Department, some of the new equipment is in place and staff have already undergone training through an outside company. Therefore, I am not too sure what the Deputy is talking about. Perhaps he would give me that information.

On the audit standards, I already answered that and I apologise for not repeating myself. The quality customer service standards involve an on-going assessment and examination of the procedures to make sure the staff are not only trained and are using the systems but that they also monitor their effectiveness. That is part of the procedure.

I am not saying all these procedures are prefect because there is an enormous amount of change and there are also staff changes. Earlier I gave the figures for my Department. It is an enormous change from the position even two or three years ago.

A section within the Taoiseach's Department, the CSO, could take a leaf out of the Revenue Commissioners' book. What plans are in place within the CSO to improve access to information on the website? Will he ensure returns can be made to the CSO in a manner similar to that used by the Revenue Commissioners? Although he may not be aware of this, the Tánaiste would be aware that the huge amount of red tape involved in making returns to the CSO is putting immense pressure on small businesses.

Yes. I will look at that. The Revenue and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs are way ahead of other Departments in their capacity to deal with their customers in this way. I am not aware of what is necessary to put in place those standards in the CSO but, as Deputies will be aware from having dealt with those offices, the quality and standard of the service and the speed with which both the Revenue and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs deal with these issues is commendable. I will ask the Minister of State to raise the matter with the CSO.

Arising from the Taoiseach's reply and with particular reference to the substantial increase in the number of queries arriving in his Department and others in the form of electronic mail in recent months, has he looked at the manner in which this matter is being addressed in the European Parliament? There has been an explosive increase in the amount of contact between citizens of the EU and the European Parliament and other European institutions. Has he examined the manner in which the European Parliament and the European Commission has addressed this real problem?

I have not looked at that but we are well served by an excellent Information Society Commission, which, even though its membership is changing, involves some of the top people across the industries who are not only aware of these schemes but are involved in designing most of them. This does not have to do with a lack of knowledge but with our ability to have websites which include all of the modern customer action plans and standards.

The Deputy correctly stated that the number of electronic mail queries is increasing. The number of electronic mails received by my Department would have been very small three years ago but it is approaching 25,000 this year. The way the public is doing business has changed totally. A recent survey showed that half of the households in an area of this city have access to technology. There is obvious growth in this area. It is the way people of all ages, but particularly young people, are communicating. That survey showed that three quarters of our young people use electronic means to convey their messages.

This does change the system greatly. It shows the success of the Information Society Commission, which has been putting forward the ways in which we should operate business in this country. Such change involves a cost on the State and necessitates training, but these changes are taking place and they are proving to be very effective.

Will the Taoiseach impress on his colleagues, the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, the need to ensure improvements in this regard in local authorities and health boards because the number of people attempting to make inquiries and representations and seeking informationvia electronic mail is increasing significantly?

I will bring that matter to its attention. The interdepartmental committee has developed a strategy for e-procurement across the public service, including central government, local authorities and the health service. It has also developed recruitment services for the Civil Service Commission and Local Appointments Commission. It has, at least, dealt with some of these areas. I will bring the Deputy's views to the attention of the Ministers concerned.

In the light of the report of the Information Society Commission, the targets set by the Government in relation to e-government and the £30 million spent to date, does the Taoiseach agree that his Department should be leading by example and not dragging the CSO behind the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and that e-mails should be responded to more quickly? The Taoiseach signed the electronic signatures agreement with the United States. Does he believe that it is unacceptable that someone can download his signature from the website?

Not only have I signed that agreement, I have signed many other documents since in the same way. I remind the Deputy that the first phase of the Revenue on-line service was introduced last summer, that further phases are due to be introduced this year and that the Electronic Commerce Bill with which the Tánaiste was involved has been enacted. In most of these areas this country has been classified and recognised as being way ahead of other countries, although the CSO and others still have a lot of work to do. The challenge is to bring everyone up to the same level. It will take much more than £30 million to do this. Where equipment or training is required, the Minister for Finance has given priority to such schemes and programmes. He has not allowed the availability of resources to hold back the advancement of any of the Government proposals.