Between a rock and a hard place

Can shared government ICT be made to work this time?

All-of-government computing has always contained the seeds of potential conflict. As Brendan Boyle, the first head of the e-government unit, acknowledged years ago, the uniting of government ICT clashes to some extent with the sacrosanct independence of agencies whose chief executives are accountable for everything they do, including their ICT performance.

EDS’ Steve Griffin reminded us only the other week that there’s a paradox between New Zealand’s New Public Management style, with the separation of public service functions into many special-purpose agencies, and an e-government plan which includes a strategy to reintegrate the information side of the public service.

Boyle put forward a positive vision of an end to repeated departmental restructurings, since networking and web-enablement would separate the real agencies' structure from their virtual face, which could be more easily changed. The pace of restructuring has slowed a little since those days, but it’s hard to credit it to the electronic networks: we’re still acutely aware, even on the web, of what agency we’re working with.

There have been some notable all-of-e-government successes, in the form of the government portal and common meta data framework underlying it.

There has also, of course, been one notable failure, in the shape of GoProcure, which the State Services Commission attempted to compel all core government agencies to use as their common platform for procurement. The agencies, particularly those with existing procurement methods or plans, resisted. GoProcure was first reduced to a hub for communication, with each department allowed to run its own requisitioning and cataloguing software, then it was abandoned altogether.

With the Government Shared Network (GSN), the proponents of integrated e-government seem to have learned a lesson — they insist that use of the network will not be compulsory. Instead, a requirement will be imposed on agencies upgrading their network infrastructure that they at least conduct a feasibility study into the use of the new shared network. In other words, if you don’t want to use it, you’d better have a good reason.

It will be interesting to see whether this leads to some weird and wonderful arguments for not using the GSN when it comes to the crunch. Alternatively, if there turn out to be good excuses for departments not to use it, then we won’t be in a GoProcure-style bind with a fixed contract. Supplier arrangements, the SSC says, will be kept “flexible, to avoid vendor lock-in".

At best, this could produce a genuine competitive market with telcos vying to pump up the GSN’s capacity and standard of service in response to users who argue that it's still not up to the mark.

The alternative, embarrassing to contemplate, will be a network with underused capacity, perhaps ripe for selling to the private sector, while agencies continue to blaze their own trail.

The other uncertainty is the degree of co-operation use of the GSN will engender. With a single network, it will become easier for agencies to collaborate and present a more unified face to the citizen seeking service.

On the other hand, there’s nothing about using a unified network that enforces or encourages collaboration. Agencies could each carve out their own slice of the network’s bandwidth and still remain stubbornly independent.

Many other states have apparently succeeded with government shared networks, but New Zealand, as EDS’ Griffin points out, is in a rare position in its degree of separation between agencies. This means the GSN is still an intriguing “punt”. It will be watched with interest nationally and probably internationally.

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