Coy gov't shows portal

The government's new web portal was on show to attendees at the Govis conference in Wellington last week. But Edwin Bruce, of the State Services Commission's e-government unit, wasn't letting the media get too close.

The government’s new web portal was on show to attendees at the Govis conference in Wellington last week. But Edwin Bruce (pictured), of the State Services Commission’s e-government unit, wasn’t letting the media get too close.

The portal was to have been launched on July 1 but it was put back because of technical problems and the general election. Those problems have apparently been overcome, but a revised launch date is dependent on the election outcome. Bruce was unwilling to provide a screenshot of the website before the official launch.

Government IS managers at the conference were told that the e-government unit, in collecting information about services supplied by various state agencies to be accessible via the portal, is cautious about delegating too much responsibility to the agencies themselves. But Bruce told them it also wants to avoid trespassing too much on their ground.

While the data and meta-data — data that describes or locates other data — belong to the agencies, the unit has been checking the meta-data as the agencies submit it. Early on, the agency had to make quite a few changes, says Bruce.

“There was quite a bit of confusion [about what constituted good meta-data] but a lot of that’s gone away. It’s fair to say they’ve improved enormously. Very little [quality assurance] is necessary now.”

Respecting the right of each agency to self-determination and individual accountability, the e-government unit cannot tell agencies to change their meta data, Bruce says. “If they don’t want to change it, we can’t compel them to.”

However a “portal charter” is being formulated to delineate clearly the responsibility of the e-government unit and agenices in maintaining portal entries and meta-data.

The bugs slowing down portal’s search engine (see Fingers crossed for portal testing) appear to have been remedied and the portal now operates with two or three seconds’ response time under a loading of 20,000 hits and 1000 searches an hour, Bruce says.

But he acknowledges the tests have been run only on a single processor, while some of the problems being experienced earlier this month related to multiprocessor coordination. The e-government unit had a beta implementation of the portal for delegates to try out last week in the conference’s exhibition space.

Government has avoided the “life-events” model for its e-government portal, the approach taken in some other countries. Instead of setting out likely needs in chronological order – birth, school, higher education, marriage and so forth – the portal presents “what to do when …” links in a seemingly arbitrary order. The first two items on the list as it was presented at the Govis conference are: “… having a baby” and “… appearing in court”.

There are, as expected, a number of alternative ways of categorising the material offered up by government agencies, such as a set of broad subject headings: “arts and culture”, “business”, “customs”.

The engine does give some unexpected results, however, says Bruce. “If you search for ‘birth certificate’ one of the entries that comes up is under ‘firearms licensing’. I suppose that’s because you have to present your birth certificate when applying for a licence.”

The portal developers have set up some generic categories for access to local government services, he says, but will be working with local authorities over the next few months on greater detail of services offered by particular authorities.

Despite the lack of sensitive information in the portal itself, strict security precautions have been incorporated into the design of the infrastructure, developed by Datacom, because the portal will be attacked, Bruce says. Even with only a test version running there have already been a few attempts at intrusion, presumably with the aim of bringing the portal down or defacing it.

There is still a problem with rendering written Maori consistently, he says, since the macron — a horizontal line above the letter denoting a long vowel — is not provided for in HTML as other accent marks are.

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