2002 Review: Public sector - The push and pull of government

Stephen Bell reviews the public sector and says the government and its agencies, as user and in some ways regulator of the IT and communications world, was as prominent an influence as ever on the industry in 2002.

The government and its agencies, as user and in some ways regulator of the IT and communications world, was as prominent an influence as ever on the industry in 2002.

Public-sector computing experienced another year of progress towards “e-government” ideals, albeit apparently slow by international standards. The annual comparative evaluation put together by consultancy Accenture saw New Zealand fall by five places on the previous year, to 14th out of 23 countries surveyed, apparently because of the more rapid advance of other nations rather than New Zealand’s laggardliness.

E-government unit boss Brendan Boyle said at the time that the unit had been concentrating on “getting the basics right” under the covers, with developments such as a uniform meta-data standard. The position was likely to improve with the release of the government services electronic portal, he said, which would make a lot of that work visible.

The portal was formally released last month, to a generally, but not universally positive reception, but before this it experienced two months’ delay through technical problems with the search engine and the inconvenient intrusion of a general election.

The other most public focal point of e-government effort during the year was the e-procurement effort, christened GoProcure — though its major co-ordinator Greg Nichols said, at one of the project’s difficult periods, that it was attracting more than its fair share of attention.

However, e-procurement is often pointed to, here and overseas, as one of the most promising internal moneymakers in the e-government theatre, and GoProcure had, indeed some would say is still having, a less than smooth ride.

Computerworld’s early expectations that the e-procurement vehicle, devised by Oracle and CAP-Gemini Ernst & Young might not attract enough interest from government agencies to justify its business case looked uncomfortably close to becoming true. In the end, government opted for a halfway mandation. It required agencies to link to the GoProcure hub, but has allowed them to do their own independent internal procedures, such as requisitioning and workflow.

This move brought new visibility for a bugbear which has always lurked in the background of NZ’s e-government moves; the conflict between the treasured independent accountability of government agencies, introduced in the 80s, and sensible adherence to a common IT framework, interoperability and shared services. We will no doubt hear more of this debate next year and in years to come.

Despite its exit from New Zealand, Accenture will continue rating the country’s e-government progress against that of other nations, and next March or April we will see whether the arrival of the portal and e-procurement has indeed made the effort going into Boyle’s “basics” more visible to the world at large.

Inland Revenue entered a major IT refresh project, which it says will give it “a more personal view of the taxpayer.” The focus will shift from purely transactional processing to “business intelligence” on such factors as “high compliance risk” — taxpayers who might not pay up readily.

Plans at the Ministry of Social Development, however, are still in limbo, with briefing notes for the new government pointing to a wide range of possible budgets for advancing IT, depending on whether the existing Swiftt (Social Welfare Information for Tomorrow Today) system needed replacing or simply upgrading. The former has been budgeted at $180m, making it probably the biggest government project of 2003, assuming it goes ahead in that form. The upgrade option, MSD reckons, comes in at a mere $78m.

Swiftt was developed in the mid-90s for the then Department of Social Welfare, since when the structure and responsibilities of the department have changed several times.

Last year saw Government’s Review of the Centre report, which recommended the foundation of a “super ministries”, combining the resources of a number of agencies under one heading. Boyle pointed to the potential role of IT in putting a virtual super-ministry face on the reality of a number of separate agencies. In recent months, the report was raised again from a different perspective in the context of GoProcure and what State Services minister Trevor Mallard saw as a growing requirement on government agencies to use the same standard systems.

Land Information NZ’s Landonline system recovered from its troubles of last year, and with only a few minor glitches and grumbles, became the recognised way to keep and access records of the geography and ownership of land. Phase 2, allowing people involved with land transactions, such as surveyors and solicitors, to enter information online to the land databases, was implemented among a restricted community in Christchurch only late last month [November].

At the high policy level, IT and communications was selected as one of three priority industries for government encouragement, the others being biotechnology and the “creative” industries like filmmaking. This has to be at least the third time IT has been so selected, with so far indifferent results in practical encouragement and growth of the industry.

As the year drew to a close, definite policy directions of this initiative in the ICT area emerged in the form of the ICT Taskforce report, placing emphasis on the need for a more positive attitude to science and a need for skilled immigrants. The prospect of selective incentives for the industry has been raised, but not spelt out.

The year was also dominated by government’s interaction with the telecommunications market, with Telecommunications Commissioner Douglas Webb making his first determinations, on interconnection costs, and working towards an evaluation of Telecom’s costs in adhering to its telecommunications service obligation.

Government’s also showed its hand in the extension of the country’s broadband communications services to “rural, regional and remote” New Zealand, with finance of tens of millions of dollars towards telecommunications companies’ costs to implement these “uneconomical” services — which strangely appeared less and less uneconomical and more attractive to the providers as the year’s second half passed.

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