How to fix the four year plan

For those of us of a certain age, the name of the government’s four year plan carries eerie echoes.

The National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 sounds familiar. Twenty years ago, the Programme for National Recovery produced by Charlie Haughey in the 1980s helped lift this country out of another recession.

But while the NRP (the 2011-2014 plan) runs to 140 pages, the first PNR (1980s) ran to only 32 pages. Its terms, agreed to by unions, employers and government, helped stabilise wages, and in return for a promise of industrial peace from the unions, the government agreed a programme of tax cuts.

Perhaps most important, buried on page 24, it contained a Big Idea.

“The International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) at the Custom House Docks is now estimated to generate some 7,500 jobs over the next 3-4 years. The development of the entire Custom House Docks site will involve construction valued at about £250 million over 4-5 years with peak construction employment of 1,500.”

There were many reasons for the rise of the Celtic Tiger. The Masstricht treaty removed borders throughout Europe, and laid the way for a single currency, both making transnational trading easier.

Ireland, with a well educated workforce (credit to Donogh O’Malley for his foresight in making schooling (mostly) free in the late 1960s), English speaking population, and attractive corporation tax rates, lured in American corporations eager for a slice of the enlarged market.

And as one of the poorer countries in Europe, we qualified for £8 billion in EU aid from structural funds.

But one of the reasons was that, for a while, there were a few good ideas, and people ran with them. For a while, there was even (don’t laugh) some regulation.

The story of where it all went wrong has been addressed elsewhere. But for those who remember the PNR, it wasn’t important just because it set out a combination of tax changes and public spending commitments. There were Big Ideas.

Try as you might, you will find no Big Idea in the NRP. And competitions such as Your Country, Your Call have not produced a workable Big Idea. The winning entrants’ suggestions were to make Ireland a digital media hub and a world centre for cloud computing, something already included in government plans.

Open government

On Tuesday, many wondered what Enda Kenny’s first take would be on the Green Party’s Monday announcement that they were calling time on the coalition.

Kenny’s first question to the Taoiseach was about preserving electronic records in the national archives. Enda complained that the government stored many documents using Microsoft Word, and “current electronic databases may become inaccessible in 30 years as a result of future changes in electronic data.”

In reply, the Taoiseach spoke of ongoing checks as databases were upgraded. Going forward, no doubt.

But there’s the germ of a Big Idea in that exchange.

The first PNR can be downloaded from the Taoiseach’s website. Check the properties of the PDF, and you’ll find it was created with Microsoft Word, Acrobat Distiller, and Acrobat PDFMaker.

Towards 2016, its successor, was built with Adobe Indesign and Adobe PDF Library. The NRP (not so much a successor as a reboot) used Acrobat PDF Maker and Acrobat Distiller.

All those software programs. Or rather, all those proprietary software programs, paid for with your tax money.

Tux: Linux Logo
Tux: Answering Ireland’s call?
Image: Wikimedia commons

They do things differently in France.

In 2007, the Assemblé Nationale migrated over 1100 computers used by MPs and staff to Ubuntu, a popular Linux distro. Linux isn’t quite free. The software is free, but developers, systems maintainers and administrators still have to be paid.

Nevertheless, the estimated cost saving will be about half a million euro over the five year term of the parliament. So successful has the project been, the French are offering advice to other European governments on how to save money by making the switch.

Meanwhile, Irish government policy is to stick with proprietary software, which one minister claims cost less.

Part of Iceland’s response to its fiscal crisis was to invite Wikipedia’s Julian Assange in to explain how to build a haven for free speech, a country where libel laws and censorship couldn’t silence whistleblowers. It’s a brave experiment.

For the open source community, the plagues on continued development are over-restrictive copyrights, and the ever-expanding and ambitious reach of American patent legislation.

It’s not going to be easy, no matter what we do. It wasn’t easy last time, and times were easier then. But along with cutbacks and paring, there needs to be a vision of the future that offers a few new ideas.

A country which offered a legislative environment which encouraged “copyleft”, and passed laws to help open source sharing, would attract some of the brightest software developers and most innovative companies in the world. A smart economy.

Why can’t that be us? What have we left to lose?

[UPDATE: Karlin Lillington has written on the legislative hurdles facing internet companies in Ireland in the Irish Times.]