Exclusive: New Zealand’s plans for digital government
Interview with Colin MacDonald, government chief information officer.
Starting a business is hard, but government shouldn’t make it tougher.
In New Zealand, the government has ruthlessly purged bad processes to make it as simple as possible. This resulted in the country being ranked first in the world for ease of doing business.
Underpinning this result is a digital system that has considered user needs from beginning to end. GovInsider spoke to Colin MacDonald - New Zealand Government’s Chief Information Officer - on how the government has used technology to improve the country’s competitive edge.
The New Zealand Government has created Real Me, an opt-in digital identity service for its citizens. It gives citizens access to a myriad of public and private services - from passport applications, marriage registrations, voting, to opening bank accounts and buying and selling property online. “It gives citizens the opportunity to access online services that they wouldn't otherwise be able to access”, Macdonald says.
The platform operates on two levels - it functions as a “simple log-in” to basic government services, and also offers an identity verification tool. “That’s when you would get your photo taken, [and] in the background, we would match that against information we already hold to prove that the person is who they say they are”, he explains.
This digital identity can then be used for bank transactions and claiming government services - minimising the need for paperwork and face-to-face meetings.
This common digital identity gives government a single view of citizens, rather than relationships with each agency occurring separately.
Powerfully, that enables the creation of new predictive services. For example, just this week the government launched SmartStart - a service that lets new parents access all relevant benefits and requirements in one place, without multiple applications across government.“We’ll progressively enhance that product based on citizen feedback over the next several months,” he says.
Macdonald isn’t stopping there - his team will expand this model to help students transition from secondary school to university. “All the information that you've shared with government during your secondary school can be, with your consent”, shared to the related agencies “that you would need to deal with in order to make your choices around tertiary education”, he says, which includes getting student loans.
The government embarked on this journey a year ago, conducting research to understand how people wanted to engage with the public. “People liked the idea of it being based around their lives, rather than it being based around government”, he says. “The way we think about that is that we should put citizens at the centre of government.”
[blockquote] “We should put citizens at the centre of government [/blockquote]
However, Macdonald doesn’t plan to integrate such services around “every life event”, he says. Only “where it makes sense, and where there is a strong desire from our citizens to see our services developed that way”. Sometimes, “it’s actually easier for people just to deal with a single transaction at a single time.”
Cutting across silos
As a smaller country with 4 million people, New Zealand can be an exemplar of reshaping citizen services. In particular, it has been able to bust silos by using new technology.
“One of the big opportunities that technology brings to government is the opportunity to work very effectively across agency boundaries”, believes Macdonald. Now, “we can design products and services that will go across those agency boundaries that previously you just couldn't do.” This has proven true: removing silos among agencies gave way to SmartStart: “We have five agencies working together to produce a single app for our mutually shared customers”, he says.
Big data and analytics also gives the public sector insight to complex problems. Officials can study “big policy issues that a government might be facing”, on economic developments, child poverty or educational attainment, Macdonald says.
Globally, MacDonald finds that most leading digital countries are implementing a common “investment management approach” to better manage procurement. This has helped agencies make digital investments “in a common direction”, ensuring standards and spendings are aligned across government. Learning to invest in “a consistent way”, is also “something that we’re absolutely going to be looking at”, he adds.
A common challenge faced by government, Macdonald admits, is attracting digital talent. “I think the secret of attracting people is to make the work interesting and meaningful”, he says. This year, the government started an internship programme to attract university graduates, getting them working on socially important digital projects.
[blockquote] “Digital has become core business for government now” [/blockquote]
Another challenge exists - educating the tech sector about government. “Digital has become core business for government now”, and it’s been “a challenge to the technology and the digital industry to become much more versed in the business of government, and to be able to work right at the core of what governments and what businesses do”, Macdonald believes.
Government can help bridge this gap - but senior officials in government “have to understand the potential that technology brings”, be familiar and comfortable with it, he says.
“That is not the case today, and has to change.”