Online services cheaper? You wish

As some of you know, I'm a dirty rotten foreigner. That means I'm taking a job or two away from hard working Kiwis who will have to starve because of my selfishness.

As some of you know, I'm a dirty rotten foreigner. That means I'm taking a job or two away from hard working Kiwis who will have to starve because of my selfishness. I also pride myself on my poor driving ability, and am planning to buy an enormous four-wheel drive vehicle just as soon as the price of fuel goes through the roof again.

I don't have Kiwi citizenship even though I'm eligible, because it seemed like such a hassle to go through to get another passport. (Although I do have permanent residency, so you can forget about turning me in as an overstayer.) Really, in a day and age when international travel is such a chore what with the bomb-, drug-, fruit- and scissor-sniffing dogs all over you like a suspicious rash, who really needs two ways to confuse the immigration department?

Unfortunately, it's come to a head. I'm going to have to go and queue up now (well, metaphorically anyway; that long one you see on the telly is for visas). The government has decided to put up the price of applying for citizenship to a whopping $460. That got me thinking, as only spending $500 I don't have can: why are we paying so much for these government services? And can I turn it into a column?

You see, the promise was that the price of such services would decrease as they were computerised and put online.

It was September 1998 when my colleague Kirstin Mills wrote a story about the impending automation of the Births Deaths and Marriages register and how the spending of tens of millions of dollars would enable the BDM people to offer cheaper services to us, the taxpaying public.

The thinking was that it would be cheaper to search a computerised index than having to hire someone to fossick through the paper records. It would be cheaper to enter new data in the register because of the reduction in double handling. It would be cheaper to enforce the law surrounding identity theft because there's not much hope of using some dead person's name to get a passport with everything cross-referenced. This all makes perfect sense, but the justification seemed to be swept under the rug when the project, alarmingly labelled Day One, was completed in October 2001. Fees were increasing in the "short term" because of the cost of paying for the new system (see Hatching, matching and dispatching records will cost more). The prices will rise again in September. Pay up front so it's cheaper later, we seem to have heard several times now. It is later -- stop raising the damned prices.

I know about the changes in fees because I read about it on Teletext. Sure enough, typing in "citizenship" in the search engine of the government's shiny new information portal pulled up a list of the relevant pages. Surfing through to the webpage I found the list of new prices for dozens of different fees from marriage licences through to citizenship enquires. For example, having one sheet of paper photocopied should you choose to change your name will cost you $2.50. Nowhere could I find the current prices, so there's no way of knowing if I should jump in and buy the services now or wait till September.

Simple mistake, you suggest, and you're probably right. But it seems indicative of Beehive's whole approach to information sharing. They don't like to give away their knowledge because knowledge is power, and probably money.

Take the Crimes Amendment Bill as another example. I knew it had passed because I spoke to a relevant press secretary. Would the government portal tell me? No it would not. I had to resort to using the Labour Party web page to get the official statement on when the bill would finally become law and what had happened to it in the process.

Minister of some things electronic Paul Swain fronted up this week for an online chat session with the nation's young people and I see other ministers are also following suit now that Swain is no longer the only one to have heard of the interweb. Perhaps it would be a good idea to ask them why it is that in this day and age we still can't apply for such things online and costs continue to rise. Trevor Mallard is up next, and as Minister of Education he's taking point on Project Probe so be sure to fire up your browsers for that one. Can't let the youth have all the fun.

I, meanwhile, will be learning the national anthem, although deep down I'll be humming a different tune.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters. Land of our Fathers can be sung along to on many websites, including here.

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