The electronic citizen

Stephen Bell looks at government efforts to use the internet to cut the cost and complexity of its massive supplies bill, offer a single - hopefully friendly - face to its citizens, and make it simple and easy for them to pay for transactions, services and even fines online.

What is the government doing to use the internet to cut the cost and complexity of its massive supplies bill, offer a single — hopefully friendly — face to its citizens, and make it simple and easy for them to pay for transactions, services and even fines online?

One of the major attractions of the introduction of “e-government” is an increase in convenience, and possibly a lower administrative cost for individuals and businesses accessing government services. A number of these, however, will involve some kind of payment or receipt of cash.

Such online financial transactions involve crucial questions of security and authentication, particularly sensitive where individuals are involved. Cases of their successful implementation to date, notably in the Companies Office, Land Information NZ and the e-procurement side of the Ministry of Social Development, have been between government and businesses, where the environment is more controlled.

The State Services Commission’s e-government unit is looking at adopting a consistent process for authentication for payments to and from all government agencies. This could well involve a separate “broker”, possibly a semi-private-sector organisation, which would be empowered to hold information on citizens and release just enough to securely identify the citizen or business involved in any payment. The Irish government has adopted this model, says New Zealand e-government unit head Brendan Boyle.

Authentication implies the maintenance of large directories with information on all citizens. There is the scope for conflict among information held centrally and that held by individual agencies, including local authorities.

Early adopters like Ireland, Scandinavia and Singapore provide an opportunity to learn on the authentication front as in other parts of e-government, but New Zealand should be careful to respect the differences in culture and mindset among countries.

Scandinavian countries and Singapore have a more centralised style of government than New Zealand.

“Our research here indicates people want information about them locked down as much as possible, with only enough being released to the agency to permit it to complete the transaction,” Boyle says.

The Australians and Canadians have gone for a full-blown public-key-infrastructure authentication method, but that carries disadvantages of cost and inconvenience, Boyle says.

A lot of what’s already in place on the authentication front deals with government-to-business transactions, and the examples are of limited value when it comes to dealings with the individual citizen, he says.

When it comes to actual payment processing, however, the unit does not consider it would be a good idea to impose a standard method or piece of software on all agencies, Boyle says. “The payment method will be left up to the individual agency.”

Citizens have preferences for ways to deal financially with each department and the citizen’s level of skill at dealing with various online payment or receipt methods should be taken into account. The agency has the best knowledge of the people it deals with, Boyle says.

A direct debit method such as that used by the Companies Office works well for businesses, but not necessarily for the individual, he says. Credit card payment, while entrenched as a method for business-to-consumer online transactions in the private sector, presents its own problems in the government environment. There are strict regulations about the levels of fees to be charged for particular government service, and they do not take account of a credit card transaction fee.

“Currently, the government bears that cost,” Boyle says. “A fee is set by regulation at, say, $25, but we will actually collect less than that.”

This raises the question of whether, in the long term, there should be differential fees for online and over-the-counter payment, and which way the difference would go. There is a certain logic to reducing fees for online payment to encourage people to use it, Boyle says. Online processing should cost the government agency less, or at worst, the same. “But the converse has been established in the US — there people seem willing to pay more for an online transaction than for an over-the-counter transaction, because of the greater convenience to them.” In New Zealand, Boyle says, citizens are unlikely to accept an online payment regime which costs more than payment over the counter.

The e-government unit is currently collecting systematic information on the services offered by each department. These look like being predominantly information services with comparatively few transactional services.

When the portal is running, later this year, the services initially offered through it will be the easier-to-manage informational services; then later the agencies will “backfill” with transactional services, Boyle expects.

Last year, the e-government unit canned a prospective e-billing project, largely because there were too few e-billing offerings in the market for a meaningful evaluation to be made. The e-billing effort will be resuscitated this year, now more offerings are around. NZ Post’s eBill, already being offered as an option for Landonline payments, will undoubtedly be one of those investigated.

Perhaps there are some economies in several agencies adopting the same electronic payment vehicle, Boyle says, “but there may not be a need for a whole-of-government payment system”.

The cost-effectiveness of electronic payment as part of the e-government repertoire is likely only to be fully able to be assessed about two years in the future, because critical mass will need to build, he says.

“There are always the standard hurdles, the main one being whether the customers are ready willing and able to make such payments,” Boyle says. “This is not a matter of ‘build it and they will come’.”

One of the biggest challenges down the track, indeed one already faced by Land Information New Zealand with Landonline, is deciding at what point the manual services, including over-the-counter payment, should be scaled back.

The published e-government strategy gives an undertaking to the ordinary citizen that alternative methods of service will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, but this is not to argue that they will continue to be the dominant method of obtaining service or paying for it. Support for manual methods will almost certainly reduce.


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