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 Header Item Public Consultation Process (Continued)
 Header Item Bord na Móna

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 966 No. 9

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Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Patrick O'Donovan): Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I agree entirely with her on many of the issues she has raised. Since my appointment to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I have been working on this issue with my officials and the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer. It is the subject of a commitment given in the programme for Government adopted in May 2016. We have gone a good way down the road in the development of a single point entry portal between the unit in my Department, the open government unit and the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

  I have a prepared answer, but the Deputy will be glad to know that much of the engagement she has suggested has been initiated. I have had engagement with the Acting Chairman and a number of other Deputies on other issues, but if it would be helpful, I would be delighted, if I can, to convene a meeting with the relevant officials and the Deputy at the earliest opportunity to bring her up to speed on the work we have done on the issue. With reference to much of what she referred to, we have gone a good way down the road in looking at it, particularly other models. One of the best examples available to Ireland for how the Government can best communicate with the citizenry through eGovernment, which forms another part of my responsibilities, is available in Estonia. While we are not suggesting we move entirely in that direction, it does give us food for thought.

  The Deputy is absolutely right. It is the advocacy groups and those who claim to be representative of civil society that engage, but the vast majority, including the middle of the road person who gets up in the morning and sends his or her children to school or looks after somebody at home, do not have that level of engagement, unless they are involved in one of the organisations mentioned. It behoves the Government to try to use every mechanism available to us at national and local level to provide the citizenry with an opportunity to hear about what the Government is doing. That is the concept behind having a single entry point portal and making communications for the Government much more streamlined. That is part of the remit I have been given.

  The public consultation portal is being developed by the open government unit in conjunction with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer. There was to be a launch of the portal shortly, but I have requested that prior to the launch it be further developed to allow users to receive email notifications and share consultations on social media. I have asked the senior officials to meet to discuss that issue, but I have also asked them to examine an aspect about which I have a concern - the ad hoc nature of the carrying out of public consultation. Week in, week out there are very large advertisements - sometimes smaller ones - in national and provincial newspapers about statutory requirements placed by every Department, local authority and so on on public consultation processes that have to be initiated. We could do it much more simply and cost effectively by virtue of State agencies, Departments and other entities being able to log on and make people aware of them. There is, however, the added difficulty of reaching people who do not have access to ICT services. Therefore, there will be a requirement to continue along the traditional route for certain elements.

  My reply has been circulated and I can go through it later, but the Deputy raised specific issues and I wanted to assure her that we had taken them into consideration. To respond to the points she raised, I would be delighted to facilitate an opportunity for her to sit down with me and my officials to hear about what we have done so far and share her ideas in order that we can move forward in a manner that is in keeping with best practice.

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: Information on Marcella Corcoran Kennedy Zoom on Marcella Corcoran Kennedy I cannot tell the Minister of State how happy his answer has made me because I raised this issue in the previous Dáil with the then Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who undertook to investigate my idea, but between one thing and another, I did not get back to him to find out what was happening. I would like to think I might have had some input into the proposal coming to fruition. I am delighted about that.

I am reassured by what the Minister of State said about not everybody having access to technology, yet it is a wonderful way for us to connect with people. Having consultations accessible on online platforms and linked with the single entry point portal will be very helpful. As a public representative, I like to think I am well informed on different things that are happening, but, as the Minister of State also said, perhaps the only time I realise there is a public consultation process is when I open a newspaper at the weekend.

I am delighted with the news and will be very happy to take up the Minister of State's offer to avail of an opportunity to make a further input at some point with him and the officials in the Department because this will be a very significant development to enable citizens to have their say, be heard and, importantly, aware when a public consultation process is taking place and we want to hear what they have to say. Policy and cultural changes are sometimes very difficult and it helps to consult citizens along the way to hear what they have to say, perhaps even before the commencement of a public consultation process. It is crucial that we get the process right because we can see the mistakes that were made in the past when the people were not consulted or given adequate information, for which we all paid the price. I sincerely believe this is a marvellous move for democracy.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan My role is one the Taoiseach has defined as Minister of State with responsibility for open government and eGovernment. They are not two different coins but very much the same entity. As I have often relayed to other Members of the House and my officials, we cannot have one without the other. While until now I have been preoccupied in the drafting and completion of legislation on other issues, legislation which is almost ready to be brought before the House, this is an issue about which I feel strongly because consultation is not something that should just be initiated by the Government. It should also be about finding out from citizens their concerns that may not necessarily be on the radar of Members. With the greatest of respect to us, we are all very busy and whether we want to admit it, in some areas we are the captive of the bubble mentality. Every Member is very busy. As a result, our agendas are often driven by those who have access to information, including advocacy and civil society groups. However, they do not include over 90% of the people who are not actively involved in any group and who may not want to attend a constituency clinic or get involved in a political party but who still wants to engage with the Government. The quickest and most effective way to do this is through an online or electronic communications system. There is a difficulty in that regard and the infrastructure to be used in creating it will not be put in place overnight. It comes at a cost which has to be borne by the people. It would be much easier if we had a magic wand in deciding whether I should bring forward a proposal in the House through the Department that would involve a lot of capital investment and that would meet with the support of Members. I am not naive enough to believe that would happen because I know that some people would say it was an awful waste of money on a vanity project to engage in consultation with the people, but this is about investing long term in our democracy when the Government and politicians would be kept way more informed of the views of the people, as opposed to what we are being told by the Fifth Estate.

Bord na Móna

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I am a bog woman and very proud of it. I come from the heart of the Bog of Allen.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten That makes two of us.

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I was about to say the Minister was also very proud of his roots. There are plenty of bogs in County Roscommon.

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