Central and local government agencies in New Zealand score significantly higher for "responsiveness" in online mode than their Australian counterparts, according to a survey conducted by Otago University associate professor Robin Gauld last year. Efficiency in responding to citizens’ queries and handling the transactions they wish to (or are obliged to) conduct is one of the objectives and one of the measures of the success of e-government, say a number of international government commentators, including US President George Bush, according to Gauld.
On basic measures, New Zealand is doing comparatively well. A test email was sent to a number of agencies with a simple inquiry about the location and opening hours of their offices. Of New Zealand government bodies, 94.6 per cent had email addresses available to the customer, local government in this respect faring a little better than central government. By contrast, only 71.4 per cent of Australian Federal agencies and 87.8 per cent of State agencies publicised their email address.
Out of those who received an email inquiry, only 60 per cent of Australian Federal agencies and 68.2 per cent of State agencies replied. This compares with 84.3 per cent for New Zealand central government bodies and 91.3 per cent for local government.
It was notable that more Kiwi agencies proffered extra unrequested information, such as alerting the would-be visitor to potential delay from nearby roadworks, Gauld said.
Gauld would like to extend the email survey worldwide, so as to arrive at a broader comparison of responsiveness by governments internationally. High-level government spokespeople stress the increase in efficiency and effectiveness that they see resulting from government agencies communicating electronically with one another, sharing data and presenting a single point of reference to the citizen. "(Former British Prime Minister) Tony Blair talked about 'joined-up government'," says Gauld. "The jargon in New Zealand is 'cross-sector strategy'. Alongside their own IT plans, most agencies have a strategy for sharing information with other agencies."
According to Gauld, such "seamless" government services confer "competitive advantage" and mitigate what he calls "managerialism" ; the fragmented and silo-like operation of agencies discharging their own specialised functions separately.
Governments are uncontested suppliers of many services in their own countries, but can be seen as competing with overseas governments as part of the effort to present an up-to-date appearance for the country as a whole. There is a political desire among government decision-makers to lead and set an example for private industry in developing an "information economy", he says.
These decision-makers have an adventurous vision of government being "transformed" into a more fluid series of information-sharing "networks" that form around policy issues, dissolving the boundaries between departments.
Analysts with a greater distance from the problem are not so bold in their prognosis, seeing the old departmental "silos" persisting under a networked superstructure, presenting an impression of unification to the public through interfaces such as web portals.
The second survey, which Gauld would also like to repeat, measured citizens’ familiarity with and use of e-government. Here New Zealanders seem less positive than Australians. Of Australians, 45 per cent have visited a government website and 35 per cent have used the web for a financial transaction with a government agency. This compares with 41 and 22 per cent respectively of New Zealanders.
Thirty-nine percent of Australians, as against only 30 per cent of New Zealanders, say they prefer web and email for interaction with government. More Australians (35 per cent) say they trust the security of government websites than do New Zealanders (30 per cent). Only 60 per cent of Kiwis agree that taxes should be spent on web-based government services, as against 68 per cent of Australians.
The most disappointing results, Gault says, came from a survey of 243 rank-and-file public servants. Only 21 per cent use email as their chief means of interacting with the public. Some saw "single-door access" for the public as producing greater efficiency, but many were more cynical. "We’re much better at creating and sharing documents," said one, "but this has merely led to new information-filtering skills (as) a prerequisite for the job."
"Without tackling political issues of departmental and ministerial fiefdoms, very little will change except greater inefficiency," another respondent said.
Fairfax Business Media