The projection of an 'ignorance economy'

Ireland's credibility as a 'knowledge economy' is being spoiled by the Irish
 government's ineptitude in matters technological writes Malachy Browne

Central to the success of any business is reputation and projecting an image of a leader in the field. Competitive terms too, of course, but expertise (or competence at least) is pivotal to success.

In October 2008, the Irish government set out its stall. "The themes of knowledge, innovation and connectedness are firmly at the heart of the Irish Government's strategy to position Ireland as a leading knowledge economy," it said in a report entitled "Knowledge and enterprise clusters in Ireland". It continued: "Ireland's competitiveness is not just based on an attractive tax regime... but on knowledge, innovation, flexibility and connectedness."

A 2004 report, "Building Ireland's Knowledge Economy", projected that by 2010. Ireland "will be internationally renowned for the excellence of its research". The report said Ireland will be "at the forefront in generating and using new knowledge for economic and social progress". It spoke of building an international reputation for research excellence. 

Why then, with our innate knowledge and innovation, have two damning reports emerged on the use of information systems in Ireland? 

This week, the Garda Inspectorate's report on Resource Allocation found almost incomprehensible deficiencies in the use of information systems across the force. Information Technology "essential to effective police administration and operations" was absent to the extent that it took the Inspectorate "well over a year to compile and analyse information readily available to police managers and government leaders on a real-time basis in most jurisdictions".

Many Garda stations were without email, one of the most fundamental communication tools. "Extraordinary amounts of Garda time are being wasted in hardcopy preparation, filing and photocopying because email is not available," the Inspectorate said.

Last week, Forfas reported that while broadband take-up has increased in Ireland, broadband infrastructure is seriously lacking, overpriced and Ireland is still three to five years behind other EU countries in broadband delivery. Fibre optic networks are the lifeblood of future broadband expansion, and the report draws attention to state-owned fibre optics that could be harmonized.

In an interview with Politico, a telecoms engineer with seven years experience delivering broadband in the UK and Ireland explained that Bord Gais, Iarnrod Eireann, the ESB and other state bodies all have individual fibre optic networks that are clearly under-utilised (or un-utilised) and there is a lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking in regard to technology.

Indeed, Paschal Preston, a Professor in Communications at Dublin City University wrote in 2007 that “the Irish State appears strikingly inept when it comes to effective industrial strategies… especially in the case of key infrastructure domains such as telecoms (as in broadband)”. He said “the  government has dithered and delayed, failing even to maintain the major annual competitive research fund (the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions - PRTLI) which was simply cancelled for three successive years”. 

Paschal Preston’s observations were made in the 2007 book “Mapping Irish Media”. Another chapter in the book, “Teachers and the consumption of ICT” by Miriam Judge, serves to prove the point on the State’s ineptitude. The chapter outlines the disastrous implementation of the “Wired for Learning” (WFL) project which aimed to bring technology to the classroom and to “promote change in the Irish education system”.

A survey of teachers using the technology found that it was outdated, bore little resemblance to existing or emerging web and communications technologies and felt like a product that belonged to “the pre-web era”.  Teachers “grappled” with the technology, found it “clumsy”, “cumbersome”, “antiquated” and “in need of modernization”.

Unlike the Gardai, WFL did have an email system, but it was utterly inadequate, with no instant messenger facility, requiring teachers to pass through several steps to retrieve messages. The system didn’t even have a bookmarking facility for web pages.

On 20 March 2008, then Minister for Innovation Policy, Michael Ahern TD, said that schools are crucial to Ireland's success as a knowledge economy.  He said: "It is vital that we continue to integrate the concept of innovation into the syllabus through business, science and ICT teaching.  This is a priority for me as Minister for Innovation Policy."

Teachers are the “gatekeepers” of Information Technology in the education system, and as such build the foundations of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’. If abstruse and difficult technology is provided to schools and teachers, what chance do students have to learn and develop the necessary (and relevant) technical skills? Meanwhile, the HSE carries on using another antiquated enterprise system which hasn’t been upgraded in 14 years and is riddled with inefficiencies.

All of these problems point to an ignorance within the government of the kinds of technologies and infrastructures required to run the state.  How can Ireland genuinely purport to be “a leading knowledge economy” given these findings?