“What communities and individuals actually want is a sense of reality or humanisation of government, rather than just a black hole,” says Maria Robertson.

Robertson leads New Zealand’s unit for predictive services and digital identity. She is the Deputy Chief Executive of Service Delivery and Operations in the Department of Internal Affairs. Her job is to make New Zealand’s public services easy to access and responsive to citizens’ needs.

In an interview with GovInsider, Robertson discusses her vision for artificial intelligence (AI) in digital services and how New Zealand is changing the way it builds public services.

Chatting with government

New Zealand is going to use artificial intelligence to provide more personalised government. “More and more we need to use artificial intelligence and kind of avatars and those sorts of things to provide an interface,” she says.

This would make government services more of a conversation and less transactional. “That then allows for a manipulation of the service to something that’s actually specific to me,” she says. Citizens “want something that’s actually reflective of them”, she adds.

The AI work will plug in with an existing workstream integrating services around big events in citizens’ lives, like birth, marriage, retirement and death. Its first such service, SmartStart, launched in December to give new parents access to services and information around the birth of their child. The next step will be “integrating around death and end of life”, she says – “that’s a really hard thing for people to navigate”.

Maria Robertson DIA

The country uses data to automatically push services and information to people around these life events. For instance, nearly all New Zealanders are entitled to pension from the government after they turn 65. The government has their birth records, and so it could automatically start sending those payments. “We have 65 years’ warning of what their birthday is and when they’re going to turn 65,” she says. “So we should be able to basically push that to people on the day they turn 65 as opposed to expecting people to come into government and then fill out lots of forms.”

Digital Identity

New Zealand also plans to use AI for real-time capture and verification of their digital identity. At the moment, citizens must visit a centre to get a photo taken and wait up to five days for the government to verify their digital identity. “What we’re trying to do is actually use AI to also be able to confirm someone in real-time,” she says.

New Zealand’s digital identity platform, RealMe, runs alongside the passport system as an additional identification to access public services and personal data. It plans to converge all of these different identities into a single one that will give people secure access to all their data, like health records and driving licences, Robertson says.

A robust digital identity is “the key to all our digital service delivery”, she says, and technologies like AI will make it easier for New Zealanders to use RealMe. The goal is that “every person has a digital identity credential that gives them access to the services that they need basically at the palm of their hand”.


A robust digital identity is “the key to all our digital service delivery”.

Robertson’s team is also exploring how RealMe can be integrated with other online identities like Facebook and Google. “It’s about the sort of seamless integration of other ways that people identify themselves online with stronger credentials like RealMe and that’s really the next step for us,” she says.

Such social media identities can be used for services that don’t require very high security. The priority will be to complete such transactions as easily as possible. “If somebody wants to just register their tractor or their trailer or something, who they are doesn’t really matter too much. So you don’t need something that’s high strength, you need something’s convenient,” she explains.

Innovation labs

New Zealand has borrowed lessons on digital services from its colleagues in the United Kingdom and Australia, developing its own unique approach.

It has not set up a single digital services unit for one. “Our model is slightly different to both Australia and the UK in that we don’t have a centralised government digital transformation office or digital service per se,” Robertson says. “What we do is we bring teams of our people from various agencies together and they work on stuff together and then deliver it,” she adds.

Departments set up innovation labs which serve as temporary working spaces for project team members from different agencies and the private sector. “It’s a dedicated sort of environment to solving a particular public problem or launch a new service or whatever it might be,” she says. This allows the teams to build quickly and not be restrained by departmental bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the DIA has a service innovation group whose job is to influence other departments to adopt these new approaches. It is “largely influencing others in the line to rethink the problem they have to solve”, she says. “If we don’t rethink the problem we have to solve, we’re at risk of digitising our old analogue processes and behaviour,” she adds. The group asks these tough questions to urge delivery teams to redesign accordingly.

A key challenge to New Zealand’s approach is finance. “It’s really about how do you fund projects that involve multiple agencies. Where fees are being paid, where does the revenue go?,” she asks. The department is working with their Treasury colleagues to find solutions to this, she adds. “Unless we solve them, we’re still in very rigid agency-specific financial arrangements and they don’t lend themselves to doing things together.”

Citizen-led design

teenagers using smartphone

DIA is changing the way services are built by involving citizens in their design. “We have to rethink the entire paradigm of it being kind of a policy lead environment to actually being a citizen-led and much more adaptive one,” Robertson says.

The government is being disrupted by the demands of younger citizens to have services and information at their fingertips. “It’s a very different construct and I think we need to simply respond to that by involving our constituency in the design and delivery of services,” she says.

Project teams ask citizens for their feedback on basic prototypes, rather than waiting to have the entire product completed. “I think it’s much more iterative than that now,” she says. “We’re really getting much more comfortable with that kind of minimum viable product and beta testing,” she adds. Robertson’s team, for instance, has gone out to public malls to show people their prototypes. They also invite users to talk about their experience with accessing services.

In the case of SmartStart, the service for new parents, the product was built faster by allowing users to interact with early prototypes. Their feedback focused the development and delivery teams’ resources on what would be most useful for users.

Giving birth or losing a relative can be among the most stressful events of our lives. Robertson intends to ensure the government can lend a helping hand in these taxing times.

Maria Robertson will be in Singapore on 26 September, speaking at Innovation Labs World. She will share New Zealand’s vision for digital services and key lessons from her journey.

Main image by Harrison / PepperyCC BY 2.0