Why water meters were a bad decision (still)

Lots of spin going on today about why water meters are a good idea and how many leaks they are finding. Apparently, Irish Water has already identified 20 houses that were using loads and loads of water. But this is only one million litres a day of water.

That is obviously great, but greater savings, and a lot less aggravation could have been had by taking much simpler and less expensive measures in relation to finding leaks, and by using the 600 million euros to replace water pipes. The 539 million euros being spent on this metering program is enough to replace thousands of kilometres of water mains (and incidentally, meter boxes could be inexpensively fitted at the same time as doing this work).

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The political price of complexity.

When will politicians learn the political price of complexity?

Look at Irish Water.

First things first. Establishing a national utility out of a local authority patchwork of pipes and personnel is complicated to begin with. There are a lot of people to satisfy, a lot of metaphorical buried bodies, and a whole load of politics.

But layering on even more components makes the project even more complex. Look at how Irish Water has made a complicated assignment into a labyrinthine project.

Firstly, there’s the accelerated meter installation program. The plan was to have a large proportion of the two million remotely readable domestic meters installed by the beginning of this month. That didn’t happen. Installing and commissioning one of these meters requires many steps and a lot of things can and do go wrong. Dodgy pipes, bad workmanship and shared water supplies are just some of the obstacles. At the wider system level, these remotely readable meters are a new technology in Ireland and there is relatively little expertise in making them work. There are no statistics that I know of on how far Irish Water has gotten with its meter project, but it looks like they are less than half-way there.

There was really no need to install such complex meters on the first go out. A simpler in-home non-digital meter which water users could opt into having installed would have been cheaper and faster. The fancy meters could have been rolled out over a number of years, as the mains got upgraded.

Secondly, there is an ultra-complex system of charging, based on a structure of allowances and estimated assessments of water use (these assessments are critical because the meter program is so far behind schedule). The official description of the charging structure is some 31 pages long.

The simple alternative to this charging system and was described by Richard Tol in 2011. With this system, meters would be opt-in. The same allowances for children and usage could have been provided through increases in social welfare and through adjusting tax credits to put more money in people’s pockets to pay the charge.

Finally, the two factors above have converged to create a requirement for an extremely complex IT system. The requirement to collect personal information to assign allowances to individuals means that there are extremely complex issues around privacy, which Irish Water does not seem to have fully grasped.

This complexity has also resulted in a pretty odd website, a disastrous PR campaign based on some pretty dodgy conceptual work described in this fascinating PowerPoint presentation. There are ‘tribute’ sites inspired by and devoted to the topic of Irish Water and which give (un-useful) tips on what to do if Irish Water should happen to try to install one of their new fangled gadgets outside your house. The long term comedic value of the Irish Water ‘ecosystem’ should not be underestimated.

The end result of this is that Irish Water is wasting a lot of money on effort on a metering system that doesn’t really do anything to help it achieve its goal. Instead of focusing on driving down the cost of water, encouraging water saving and fixing the leaks in our rather dodgy national water network, Irish Water has gotten itself bogged down in an expensive, unpopular and ultimately unnecessary project which is going to deliver a lot of problems and very few benefits. But it isn’t Irish Water who will have to bear the cost. It will be citizens, and their elected politicians, who will pay the price.

A short guide to buying health insurance in Ireland

There was an interesting article in the Irish Times today about health insurance in Ireland by Fiona Reddan. It was interesting, in that it addressed some questions and queries about health insurance, but not that helpful in that it didn’t provide any answer to the question of how to get the best value for  your health expenditure. It also stepped around the obvious conclusion: private health insurance is good value, if you can afford it. So, here is my short guide to buying health insurance. Continue reading

Charging for Postcodes and the Legendary Ryanair Toilet Levy

Yesterday we got some information about how open the Irish postcode system will be funded. Essentially the idea is to pay for its setup and operating costs out of a charge to end-users for the database – charging for access to the ‘facility’, if you like. This ‘licence fee’ is a rather humdrum traditional idea about charging for things to do with computers and information.

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Too many bad decisions – why the Seanad matters

The Seanad debate trundles on with discussion of power grabs, costs, referendum powers and so on. What is getting lost is the issue we should all be obsessed with – the consistently bad quality of decisionmaking at the highest levels in Ireland -.

As a nation, we make too many bad decisions. Our political machinery makes these decisions apparently without being fully informed of the full range of options available, or indeed of the consequences of the options chosen. And sometimes we just seem to sleepwalk into these mistakes. The job of a well-formed Seanad should be to awaken us and our politicians from our stupor.

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Patronage not profit. The future of Irish news media

As a nation, we are mad for opening up media outlets. We have over 20  daily or weekly newspapers of national scope (see lists for Ireland and Northern Ireland) and countless local and specialist publications. The Internet is a facilitator for new publications and there are plenty there too. This continued expansion seems like the future.

Some optimists in the industry believe new revenue streams will open up as web users get used to paying for their content. (see this report about the Irish Times’ plans and this one in relation to the Independent.)

I think that on the whole, the opposite will happen to Irish media on both scores. Continue reading

A proper address can be a matter of life and death

The Irish Times reports this morning that an ambulance was sent to a wrong address and that as a result receipt of medical attention was delayed. The child subsequently died. This is a great tragedy, most of all for that child’s parents, but also for us all. We can cure cancer, but we can’t get an ambulance out to a dying child.

[updated with new information 22 June, see below] Continue reading

The Irish Government Accounts and what Kevin Cardiff did wrong.

NamaWineLake comments on the €3.6bn Irish government mis-accounting scandal. Basically, the national debt was miscounted and the boss of the Department of Finance (Kevin Cardiff) was called into the Public Accounts Committee.

NamaWineLake says that the error was (a) statistical and (b) not a cash item and suggests that the matter is therefore less serious. I think this is a mistake.

It is not true to call the error simply a ‘statistical error’ or to forgive it because it was not a figure that directly relates to cash or because it does not directly effect interest payments. It is an accounting error. (Arguably, accounting is a species of statistics, but that would require a tendentious argument.) Regardless of what type of error it is, it is a very significant error indeed. Three billion, six hundred million euros is an awful lot of wonga, whatever way you consider it.

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IT expenditure and failure – submission to public expenditure consultation

Re: Government Expenditure Review

Dear Minister,

I’m writing someone who has worked in various ways with government over the last several years, in particular in relation to technological projects. Principally these were:

  • postcodes (through my role with NSAI/ICTSCC)
  • various transport IT projects, including the integrated ticketing system, ‘real time passenger information’, and the ‘travel planner’.

Without exception the outcome from these projects has been disastrous. The problems were perfectly forseeable. My conclusion is that our whole procurement system is broken and this is actually damaging our country. This is not just about spending too much, it’s also about total failure to deliver.

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