Government still has work to do

The government will undoubtedly be trumpeting its accomplishments on the ICT front as it sells itself in advance of this year's election. It's timely to take a look at what's been achieved.

The government will undoubtedly be trumpeting its accomplishments on the ICT front as it sells itself in advance of this year’s election. It’s timely to take a look at what’s been achieved now, rather than attempt to when the electioneering clamour really gets started.

On the face of it, Paul Swain and Trevor Mallard, the ministers most to do with IT, can lay claim to some solid achievements. Swain has nursed the Telecommunications Act through parliament and installed someone in the office of the newly created telecommunications commissioner. Mallard has created an e-government unit within the State Services Commission, which has produced a national strategy and is going about the business of shifting the state online.

Other government departments and agencies have been chipping in as well: the ministries of economic development and research, science and technology have been providing bureaucratic and financial backing for a wide range of high-tech initiatives and ventures. Among those are the e-commerce action team (Ecat), which, since its formation after 2000’s E-commerce Summit, has been tirelessly talking up the subject throughout the regions.

Mallard’s also been active on the education front, where his able lieutenants have been working to extend availability of computers and adequate communications links in schools; and he’s backing initiatives that allow schools to collaborate using ICT.

And there’s more to come. We saw a glimpse of some of it 10 days ago when an e-government unit delegation demonstrated the planned government portal, which will replace the existing site (known fondly, or otherwise, as nzgo). The portal has an intended launch date of July 1, handily timed for an election late in the year, and the government is clearly keen to make sure it goes down well with the people. That’s why it’s taking the unusual step of soliciting feedback from the likes of us (reasoning that IDG, Computerworld’s publisher, has garnered some useful experience of web publishing in the six years we’ve been doing it), and numerous community groups. The delegation promised our suggestions – and there were a fair few – will have an impact on the final look of the site, which shows a healthy willingness to listen. They told us the unit’s brief is to help boost the efficiency of government services, provide a way for agency performance to be measured and to enhance democracy.

If New Zealanders are anything like Americans, we have a growing desire to interact with the government online. In the US, according to a study released this month by Pew Internet and American Life Project, 68 million Americans adults have used government websites, up 70% from two years ago. Statistics New Zealand reports that the use of the internet here is also growing at a phenomenal rate, with the number of unique visitors to its own site climbing by 35% since June 2000, to around 20,000 a month. So making itself more accessible online is bound to be a good vote-catcher for the government.

Superficially, then, our present rulers score pretty well on the ICT front. But there are some big deficiencies. While we’re bound to be reminded of successes in getting community-based high-speed communications services off the ground, we continue to suffer a comparative paucity and excessive priciness of broadband internet access.

While the Telecommunications Act sends an industry referee out on to the playing field, we’re yet to see any competitive benefit from the new rules. While the government shows a generally good level of IT literacy, it seems unable to get to grips with the potential benefits of being open to open source software. And its biggest black mark of all: it is showing little appreciation of the urgency of passing laws essential to running a country in an online world.

If the government’s achievements go down well with the wider public, the IT community is more likely to judge it on its deficiencies, which affect it more acutely. If those can be attended to between now and polling day, you’d have to consider giving it your vote.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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