Inside New Zealand’s strategy for more inclusive digital services

By Ming En Liew

Interview with Paul James, Chief Digital Officer of New Zealand.

New Zealand has big lessons on inclusion for the world. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the first world leader in nearly 30 years to have a child while in office; the speaker of parliament went viral in 2019 for bottle-feeding a baby while in a debate; and the country has one of the most diverse parliaments globally, according to CNN.

The nation is bringing inclusivity into its digital policies. Even as the government looks towards revolutionary tech such as AI, some citizens are being left behind. Around 20 per cent of New Zealanders face challenges with digital exclusion, reveals Paul James, Chief Digital Officer.

James shares with GovInsider the digital initiatives happening in New Zealand, and how the government ensures that no New Zealander gets left behind.

Building trust in AI 

New Zealand is using data and AI to automate decision making and improve the efficiency of citizen services, says James.

For instance, New Zealand uses AI to provide social assistance to youths, wrote a report by AI helps to identify youths who are at a higher risk of long-term unemployment, by looking at factors such as their reason for leaving school.

Paul James, Chief Digital Officer, New Zealand (Photo by Government Chief Digital Officer)

Paul James, Chief Digital Officer, New Zealand (Photo by Government Chief Digital Officer)
The risk level informs officials of the level of support these youths may require. The government then offers them support in the form of qualifications and training opportunities.

More than 60,000 young people have accepted assistance since 2012, with one-third of them being referred through AI. This has led to an improvement in education achievements and wellbeing, and less time on a benefit, compared with those who did not use the service.

Immigration New Zealand also uses AI to process visa applications more quickly, highlighted the same report. Algorithms assess visa applications and automatically assign a risk rating to them. An applicant without a recognised travel document, for instance, will be flagged so immigration officers know to pay greater attention.

AI helped Immigration New Zealand approve visa applications more consistently, as well as improved processing time and risk management.

Despite the perks of AI, many New Zealanders are still uncomfortable with how these tools are used in society, James highlights. People worry that these tools can be biased, he explains.

“Ensuring there is trust in the way that automated decision making is developed and used is critical,” says James.

They do so by funding community groups to lead their own AI projects, and consulting with New Zealanders and the indigenous Māori people prior to using these tools. The country also developed a charter requiring agencies to be transparent on the algorithms that drive decision making, wrote GovInsider.

This allows New Zealand to use data and AI effectively, while maintaining citizen trust.

Digital inclusivity for all

New Zealand has made it a priority to bring the indigenous people – the Māori – along on its digitalisation journey, highlights James. “The Māori are often under-represented in New Zealand’s data,” said Craig Jones, Deputy Chief Executive of Stats NZ, in an interview with GovInsider.
“Building authentic and enduring relationships with Māori benefits all New Zealanders,” says James.

In 2021, it signed the Mana Ōrite Agreement, which states that the New Zealand government will consult with the Māori people prior to implementing any digital transformation initiatives.

This Agreement states that the Māori people and New Zealand government have equal decision-making powers and acknowledges the validity of each side’s perspectives, knowledge systems and world views, explains James.

Viewing decision making through a Māori world view makes sure that the digital needs and aspirations of the Māori are met, James adds. For instance, New Zealand launched programmes to help Māori businesses with digitalisation.

During the pandemic, a NZ$15 million (US$10,117) fund was created to help build the digital skills and capability of small and medium-sized enterprises run by Māori, Pacific, and disabled people.

This fund helped SMEs in these priority communities gain the skills needed to “operate confidently and with ease in the digital world,” says James. “This enables the SMEs to trade online, maintain business viability and potentially save jobs that were at risk under Covid-19 restrictions,” he adds.

Another population often left behind during digital transformation is the elderly. New Zealand’s Office for Seniors avoids this by increasing seniors’ digital literacy. They do so through digital literacy courses which covers a range of skills, such as turning on devices and video calls.

Digital identities for a digital world

Digital identities are another way that New Zealand hopes to introduce all New Zealanders to the digital world. Moving away from paper records and towards digital formats can help New Zealand grow its digital economy and transform government services, says James.

For instance, digital identification can lead to greater convenience in processes like online banking, opening a utilities account, or claiming welfare payment.

In the same way that New Zealand keeps AI use transparent, guidelines are also in place to regulate how digital identification is used. Examples of the guidelines include digital identification being an opt-in service and security protocols to manage identity theft.

New Zealand and its neighbour Australia are currently working together to mutually recognise each country’s guidelines for digital identification use. This agreement will make it possible for the two countries to do business and share information with each other.

New Zealand is taking care to consider diverse perspectives and needs while improving support and widening the reach of public services. Digital transformation can bring great convenience and value to citizens’ life, but only when citizens are on board with the changes. All aboard!