The next major challenge for e-government in New Zealand is to focus on the needs of the customer rather than government agencies, says new e-government unit head Laurence Millar.
Millar says the switch needs to be made from a "supply-driven" system to a "demand-driven" view.
The latter view will mean coordinating work and information flow among agencies more, so as to serve many facets of a single customer need.
Many private-sector organizations are already well down the road with such customer relationship management, Millar says.
"When you do business with one department of a company, it's no longer a surprise to you if you get a relevant communication from another part of the same company." In business, it's often a matter of "cross-selling" but in government passing customer information around smoothly would be rather part of providing an efficient coordinated service.
The work of the e-government unit and agencies means the infrastructure of e-government is already substantially there, Millar says, with the portal and secure e-mail among departments, LDAP directory services, meta data enabling information and services to be readily located and an emerging use of XML for passing enhanced information among agencies. Improved integration is needed, to reduce the number of occasions a citizen has to go to two or more websites to get one task done.
Every integration proposal, however, should be tested rigorously for genuine added value, he says.
Millar brings to the job a mixture of public and private sector consultancy. The latter provides some lessons that can be carried over to e-government, he says. He has spent some time dealing with the needs of small and medium-sized businesses with between 50 and 300 employees, and many smaller government agencies are in that situation, he says.
One must beware, however, of trying to translate too much between the two sectors, he says.
A private company has maximization of profit to the shareholders as its chief focus. When its products and services are not selling, it must trim its expenditure. There is not the same imperative in government.
On the other hand, private business can afford to take risks in order to produce profit more quickly; government cannot do so. Private industry can choose to supply some customers and not others.
"I could say: I'll only make this service available to JetStream users, or people with Apple machines. In government you have a certain obligation to provided a universal service."
Potential customer demand for online service is higher than ever before. Surveys show 75 percent or New Zealanders have used the Internet within the past week and 45 percent used an online government service within the past year. These are impressive figures compared with what Millar has seen reported from other nations' e-government efforts.
The "next big thing" in customer networking could well involve the text-capable cellphone, he says. The unit will certainly begin exploring the potential of this channel to cater for a larger population at more times of the day than those with a handy internet-connected PC.
Government agencies are moving into using "shared workspaces" such as discussion arenas and collaborative authoring tools "horizontally" across agencies. Human resources units, for example, share non-sensitive information about the practice of HR.
There is no reason why, in time, this kind of sharing should not extend to include the citizen. This could ease the consultative process and introduce elements of what some have called e-democracy.
E-voting has been mooted for the 2008 election, but Millar advocates keeping a wary eye on the developing U.S. experience.