Implementing e-government might lessen the periodic restructuring of government departments, says Brendan Boyle, who became head of the State Services Commission's e-government unit a month ago.
One of the basic aims of e-government is to “become more citizen-centric”, Boyle says, offering the citizen a single portal through which an extensive range of government services can be accessed. “From the citizen’s point of view [online access to government] should be seamless.” If different departments are brought together virtually, there might be less need to do it physically. One of the first stages of the e-government development will be “developing a whole-of-government e-strategy”. This will be drawn up by the e-government unit with advice from a large number of stakeholders, including an “e-government advisory unit” that includes four departmental chief executives, one representative from local government and one from the private sector. The unit has already begun “strategy workshops", he says. "We’ve asked various people to help us and that help has been willingly given.” The e-strategy document will be aligned with the existing whole-of-government business strategy. Boyle expects a draft of the new strategy to be submitted to ministers before Christmas. “We will determine what strategic approach we adopt, and set out goals and time-lines.” The strategy has to be robust to take the knocks of change in government processes, but also flexible, to reflect such changes and advances in technology when that is necessary. “We will identify the risks and challenges, and consider what we can put in place to minimise these risks.” After that, the departments — and private-sector suppliers — will begin implementing. “Risk sharing” between supplier and government is an approach that meets with the unit’s approval, and has been taken by overseas governments with positive results. The supplier might contribute some finance to the project, in the anticipation that it will be beneficial to the supplier in future projects. A private supplier might even run, say, an e-procurement operation and take a payment on each transaction going through, as a return for them sharing the risks and costs of development. “We’ll be [scheduling] deliverables over a four-year period, with the focus on the first and second years. The first year has already started. “We’re in a strong position,” says Boyle, “because there have been major developments on this front overseas, and a lot of strategic thinking has been done.” In particular, he mentions Britain, Singapore, Canada the US and Australia — countries he examined when he wrote a thesis on e-government at MIT. “Some of the initiatives in Australia are as advanced as anywhere,” he says. They have taken quite a lead in developing e-government portals as a single point of access. “There is an advantage to not being a first mover; we can learn what other countries did that was good and what was bad.” New Zealand government won’t leap into the lead, “but we should catch up faster”. Improved access to government services and meeting citizens’ demand for better service are two of the crucial aims of the outward facing side of e-government. Internally, e-procurement by government departments is likely to figure early in the plan. This, Boyle says, might galvanise private industry into adopting e-procurement, and should certainly start such a movement among potential suppliers to government. Another issue is globalisation, he says. Putting e-government initiatives in place is a step towards raising a positive image of New Zealand as a good place to invest. Will the current decentralising of control in government militate against the introduction of such a cross-department incentive? “There is flexibility in the State Sector Act regarding management practices,” Boyle replies. There is scope to introduce incentives for co-operative developments in performance and purchase agreements and. contracts. “The strategic framework for Government can reflect the need for co-operation.” There are strong “sectoral groups” among departments already; the social sector of government, for example, has set up regular meetings among the chief executives of its constituent departments. An e-procurement project has already begun under the leadership of the Department of Work and Income, and there will be a similar plan for other e-government developments; one department will take the lead, with the aid of a working group comprising representative of the other agencies. “This is not simply a big IT project,” Boyle says, “It’s a culture change, in terms of the way agencies work together. It will demand an overhaul of thinking, centring on those issues of co-ordination and co-operation.” But there is a “tremendous amount of goodwill from the chief executives”, he says, “a recognition of the need to co-operate. The signs are encouraging”. In his MIT thesis he suggested that in evolving co-operative services, the citizen and the government might have to be more “flexible” on the privacy question; to allow use of their details across departments in a way that has not been considered desirable before. He still sees, perhaps, some change as necessary to ease e-government implementation. The government is still conscious of the need to protect privacy, he emphasises. “These issues have to be discussed with citizens. But both citizens and government have to come to grips with the privacy implications of the e-world.” The e-government unit will, of course, consult with the Privacy Commissioner, and, again, look at best practice overseas. “Unlike some of the big reforms of the past [e-government] is demand-driven” by the citizens, he says. With an increasing number of people connecting to the Internet, “we will be benchmarked against Amazon and Yahoo” for level of service, availability of the right information and ease of use. “The teenagers of today in particular are very Net savvy, and they are tomorrow’s users of government services and tomorrow’s voters.”