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Here’s the buzz

Here’s the buzz

The Beehive website gets a facelift

Back in the early 1990s, when a couple of young blokes from a strange little company called Netscape first came up with a nifty way of surfing the web, internet visionaries talked of the way this new tool could allow citizens to get greater access to information about what their elected representatives were doing.In fact, New Zealand was one of the first countries to do this, in a very modest way. The site www.executive.government.nz went live on July 14, 1995 — Bastille Day, for those with a taste for historical ironies.

“The idea then was just to get the information out,” says John Spavin, whose company, Netco, is now in charge of maintaining the newly revamped and rechristened site.

“Everyone was discovering the internet then, and we just wanted to make the basic information available. And I don’t think the core idea has changed.”

Spavin was involved back at the origins, although in a different role. At the time he was writing speeches for the then Minister for Information Technology, Maurice Williamson — himself something of an internet evangelist within a cabinet which, at the time, thought “surfing” was what dole bludgers did.

The site had a makeover last month, with the new — and to New Zealanders much more recognisable — name of www.beehive.govt.nz.

The basic idea of the site is to get out the raw information of government — ministers’ press releases and speeches. These days though, all ministers are involved, although some make more use of the site than others.

Back in the mid-90s ministers’ press secretaries would put up the information, says Spavin, but it was all rather ad hoc.

“It was just press releases, and speeches of ministers who felt so inclined. When it started it was coded manually in HTML — a sore-arms site.”

It took two years before even a basic search engine was involved, and a database for the site was added around the same time.

“Ministerial press secretaries who wanted to could load their ministers’ press releases pretty much in real time, as they filed them out to their media contacts. But a lot of it was still very ‘flat’, as a site.”

All releases and speeches now appear on the site — generally around the same time as they are released to the media, and not just — as sometimes happened in the past — that evening or even a bit later that week.

“A press secretary who doesn’t know about HTML now doesn’t need to know — they can load the press release or speech, attach the word document, images, PDFs or whatever they want, and have it live online pretty much immediately.”

Some ministers have gone further — Minister of Health Annette King has posted the policy papers that have underpinned the Labour-Alliance regime’s health reforms, and Social Services Minister Steve Maharey has, similarly, put up some of the cabinet papers for the government’s welfare reforms.

A further development is the categorisation on the site: citizens wanting to find particular information used to have to look by way of the minister’s releases. That was never as straightforward as it might sound. For example, Pete Hodgson is Minister for Energy, Fisheries, Forestry, Research Science and Technology, Crown Research Institutes, Timberlands West Coast and Small Business, as well as having a swag of associate roles in the areas of business and foreign affairs. A citizen after information on, for example, fisheries would have to wade through everything that the minister had put out on all his areas of responsibly — no small task.

The new site enables New Zealanders to search by ministerial portfolio as well. “So if you want something from Mark Gosche on housing you don’t have to go through all the other stuff he has put out on Pacific Affairs, Transport or Civil Aviation — the other portfolios he holds. That means people can refine their searches quite a bit.”

The search engine aspect of the site still isn’t perfect, says Spavin — one improvement in the offing is to enable searches by month.

“Currently, visiting the site is probably a bit like buying a new car and finding out the rear-view mirrors don’t work quite the way you want, and you can’t adjust them to suit yourself. We’re just tweaking that.”

Spavin uses a car analogy, somewhat jokingly, when he talks of the use the site gets these days.

“If I were selling cars I would say we get 290 million ‘hits’ a year — but of course hits are not necessarily the best guide to how much people actually use a site. In terms of pages that get viewed by people, we’re talking about three million a year.”

He notes that one advantage government sites have over commercial web-based traffic is that the bar for success is a bit lower.

“A government site is successful when someone comes and has a look — not when someone buys something or bookmarks the site, or signs up for getting emailed newsletters.”

The database behind the site is run by Breathe Communications. The two have combined for other work, and now have a joint venture effort, One Squared.

The archives go back to 1995, when the site began, although the further back you go the more sporadic the information is — depending very much on how important the relevant minister — or their press secretary — saw web-based information at that time.

There are currently tens of thousands of documents archived on the site, says Spavin — most of the press releases are only a page or two, but the speeches are much longer. The chunkier files are the policy documents from those ministers who have taken the initiative in their areas of responsibility. The current information is about a gigabyte’s worth, he says.

While the Beehive site is comparatively small, the press releases and speeches often contain links to material on government department sites. For example, material released relating to the Budget last month by ministers — the policy centrepiece of the year — contains links to material on other sites — mostly Treasury, although other departments are also involved.

“The Budget is a big event but it’s only once a year, so we didn’t see that it was worth building a database for that alone. The Beehive site will have the speeches and the press packages, but the actual guts of the Budget will be linked across,” says Spavin.

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