Tasmania offers sisterly e-government advice

Small and poorly resourced can mean innovative, nimble and proactive, says a representative for Tasmania's e-government initiatives.

Small and poorly resourced can mean innovative, nimble and proactive, says a representative for Tasmania’s e-government initiatives.

Rebekah Burton of Tasmania’s department of Prime Minister and Cabinet admits her state’s economic performance is “pretty dismal”, which leaves it somewhat behind the eight-ball when it comes to funding for e-government. But this can be a hidden advantage, she says.

One Tasmanian innovation is an automated procedure for “harvesting” updated data from participating government agencies, removing some control from them over submitting their own data. This question of placing the control boundaries between department and central e-government agency has proved controversial in New Zealand’s implementation (see Coy gov't shows portal).

By the content and tone of her address to the recent Govis meeting, Burton clearly feels Tasmania has something in common with New Zealand, but is equally convinced her state is ahead. A veteran of e-government presentations, she told her Wellington audience “I expect to be in the audience [in Tasmania], listening to speakers from New Zealand soon”, as though addressing herself to a younger but fast-maturing sibling.

It is important for small territories to learn both from the successes and from the mistakes of those who had gone before, she says. “We’re not trailblazers.” Tasmania, she says, first thoroughly explored the experience of the early adopters, particularly New Brunswick in Canada, the US and the UK.

One mistake Tasmania avoided by this means was installation of street kiosks, which had been promoted to some Australian states as a way of providing service to people with no ready access to PCs. “[Overseas trailblazers] found that, surprisingly, people didn’t want to conduct confidential business with government in the public street”, Burton says. “Don’t be fooled by [vendor] rhetoric.”

Other government users are also inclined to exaggerate achievements. A Canadian presenter at a recent conference demonstrated its enACT system, giving public access to legislation, in a similar way to our own Parliamentary Counsel product. But investigating, Burton found the system only included new legislation.

A core feature of Tasmania’s own implementation is a series of service centres around the island, where both over-the-counter service and terminal access are provided.

Tasmania decided the central description of data, known as the meta-data, had to be consistent across all agencies, Burton says, and “independent of agencies’ own descriptions of their data”.

New Zealand, by contrast, is encouraging agencies to evolve their own meta-data, with help from the e-government unit. “That [approach] can be difficult at the start but it repays the effort spent on it,” Burton says. That seems to be the experience of New Zealand’s e-government unit, to judge from spokesman Edwin Bruce’s comments to Computerworld last week.

Tasmania’ e-government development was heavily funded in its start-up phase by state and federal government, but annual budget appropriations make long-term funding difficult. There has been some limited public/private partnership, but it must be appproached with caution, Burton says. The Canadian state of Ontario’s National Parks web presence is run jointly with Pepsi and carries its advertising, which she finds difficult to accept.

Concern is now emerging as to how Tasmania’s developments can be funded in the longer term when government funding dries up. Community support seems hesitant, Burton says.

“Opportunistic” development in obvious areas with later spread to related agencies has proved a productive tactic. An online fines payment system, much like that implemented by the Courts Department here was, in Tasmania’s case, seized on by the police as an opportunity to start electronic fines processing from the issue of the infringement notice.

Both Tasmania’s and Hong Kong’s e-government web pages (see Private money in Hong Kong e-government) show more intensive use of graphics than New Zealand’s very spare and functional portal. Burton says there is a certain amount of “marketing” needed and an attractively designed site helps.

There was little concern about bandwidth limitations slowing the display of complex pages; most users in Tasmania, even in rural areas, have at least 64kbit/s available, she says.

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