Case Study: Ireland Cross Government Intelligent Content (eCabinet)

The Prime Minister's Cabinet decided to replace the decades old manual government-wide decision making process with real-time collaboration and Intelligent Content. Dozens of key stakeholders, highly diverse technologies, and intricate rules of order resulted in seventeen linear feet of specifications. Reducing that level of complexity to a single system across 16 Departments that was accessible to 6,500 users was a challenge never before undertaken in the Irish Republic. Despite these obstacles, eCabinet was delivered on-time, under budget, and with more functionality than was originally planned.


The Republic of Ireland Enterprise Wide Government Initiative


Each week, the 16 Departments of the Irish government submit legislative and other memoranda to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet for inclusion in the upcoming Cabinet meeting agenda. It is absolutely mandatory that every government department officially review each memorandum submitted to determine how the memorandum affects the aspects of Irish life that the department oversees. This process requires extensive collaboration between the departments, including more than 1,000 document routings to individuals who may render opinions on the memoranda in preparation for each weekly Cabinet meeting.

Key Challenges:

The challenges being addressed by the Irish Government were similar to those found in many other content-heavy organizations:

  • Information silos hindered enterprise processes – The nature of 16 distinct departments and offices of government, each with their own legacy infrastructure and internally designed business processes, posed a significant challenge for enterprise collaboration and information exchange. Silos made sharing knowledge between departments difficult.
  • Information trapped in word processing documents: While the use of word processing was ubiquitous among the departments, no single file format or version was universal. Even with the majority of departments standardizing on Microsoft Word, content was locked in .doc files with none of the data transparency available through XML.
  • Occasional users needed to be able to participate without specialized skills. Although the system needed to serve thousands of users, many of them would engage in a Cabinet-oriented knowledge activity on a very occasional basis — for some, only once in a career. With any large system, usability is a key to success. When the system also has a large number of occasional users, a simple and intuitive authoring experience becomes the critical success factor.


After researching various solutions and performing rigorous technology trials the government selected Research, a US-based developer of off-the-shelf XML content tools, to deploy eCabinet. worked with the government to identify the challenges that might negatively impact project success. They learned as much as they could about the ways government workers performed their duties in hopes of avoiding solutions that might intensify problems rather than solve them.

Business process change is risky, even when it carries huge potential benefits. The Irish government was aware that moving to XML authoring involved major technology and process changes, and that similar projects had not always met with success in the past. Their solution for managing change was both simple and in some ways different — which might explain the overwhelming success of the project. Their approach covered both the design and the marketing of the system.

From a design standpoint, while addressing many enterprise issues, they recognized the importance of usability.

“In this industry, we have seen more projects fail due to usability than architecture,” said lead project architect, Michael Boses. “As an industry, we almost always get the implementation of a content management framework right, but way too often fall short in making that framework usable for knowledge workers who need to create or review content.”

Usability was measured not only with stakeholder feedback, but also with a mandate that the entire system be accessible to department users after a four-hour “familiarization session” as opposed to detailed training. As it turned out, the project team far surpassed this goal, and familiarization is now achieved with the web-based delivery of a brief tutorial. It’s amazing and it works.

One reason the project was such a success is because the team identified one of the major obstacles: fear of learning new tools. They tackled this challenge by adopting XPress Author for Microsoft Word, a tool that provides XML authoring capabilities to authors using Word, without changing the familiar user interface or common feature set.

Key Benefits:

Beyond usability, the project team focused on eliminating the tasks that knowledge workers most disliked, and focused on usability by finding software that allowed authors to create documents without being exposed to the complexity of XML.

For example, preparing documents for Cabinet is a complicated process, with extensive rules that are not intuitive to department workers. These rules have historically been spelled out in a Cabinet Handbook, and reconciling the rules with what a department worker actually needed to do was a daunting task for anyone who was collaborating on Cabinet documents on an occasional basis. The eCabinet project got rid of the rule book by incorporating the rules into the system and the XML definitions that controlled document creation. Users could not help but like the fact that they were ensured their documents would conform with Cabinet regulations.

Fear of the unknown can cripple an organization and its knowledge workers. Many information-technology projects have failed due to a lack of attention paid to the challenges change introduces. The project team also minimized the fear of change by using easy-to-understand language instead of industry-laden jargon.

Assistant Secretary of the Irish Government, Peter Ryan, explains: 

“To get buy-in, we needed to focus on the improvements we were making in the process and not the new tools and technologies we were rolling out. Government workers don’t need to understand the nuances of XML — nor any other technology — in order to do their jobs better. So, we replaced jargon and technology buzz words with the word ‘thing’. And, when we explained the changes we were going to make, we took great pains to explain them using plain English.”

Ryan’s team and visited government workers in each of the ministries and offices impacted by the changes. They spoke to workers about the “things” that didn’t work well, and the “things” that needed to be fixed. They promoted the idea that this new “thing” (XML authoring) would make their work lives easier and allow them to get more “things” done with fewer resources. And, they promoted the idea that the “things” each worker hated about their jobs would be replaced with more efficient ways of working.

reprinted by permission of Scott Abel