Strengthening the state

John Lattimore analyses the possible effects the IT revolution will have on the delivery of public services

Dealing with central and local government in the Information Age should be much less of a chore than at present, and much of the business that currently can only be transacted after a lengthy queue will in the future be conducted on-line. Telecommunications advances, such as the internet and voicemail, even have within them the potential to straighten democracy by ensuring that all voices, however small, are heard when important issues are debated.

The advent of the "cashless society" should eliminate the present queues for social welfare payments and pensions that are a fact of life for present day claimants, and equally should simplify the process of setting your tax bills, local authority refuse charges, and so on.

Smartcard technology will probably form the basis of relationships between the individual and officialdom in the Information Age, with taxpayers and social welfare claimants each identified by their card and PIN to prevent fraud or misrepresentation.

Accessing government and local authority services will also become a remotely conducted affair. The day is far off yet when the local library will download the requested titles to the memberís home computer, but it will not take very long for a system to emerge whereby the library catalogue can be scanned, and books ordered and held for collection later on.

Information on school places and curricula train and bus timetables, job vacancies and training courses, plus details of health and other community services will all be available at the touch of a button. This will be possible using a home computer, but as not all homes may possess such , disadvantaged areas and city centres are likely to have walk-in centres where the required technology will be available free to those who need it, probably backed up by a specially trained advisory staff capable of familiarising clients with the use of the technology, and offering direct advice and assistance where necessary.

Voicemail will also have a very pertinent role to play, particularly in the running of role to play, particularly in the running of local authorities. Gerry OíSullivan, head of Corporate Relations at Telecom …ireann, envisages a scenario in which plebiscites on issues of local importance could be conducted using voicemail. The authority in question need only outline its plans in a voicemail that would be transmitted to the relevant district, block, or even an individual street. Households would then have the opportunity to make their voices heard (literally!) on the issues that directly concern them and thus have a direct and meaningful input into the decision making process in a manner, and to a degree, that has never been possible before.