Stories by Rob Hosking

The merger maven

Go back six years.
New Zealand’s telecommunications market was fragmented. On the one side, there was Telecom, the wired behemoth that everyone grizzled about. On the other, a group of small insurgent telecommunications firms, of varying sizes and types, and committed to various parts of the markets.

Written by Rob Hosking08 Dec. 02 22:00

The e-government engine

Anyone who has ever run a website — or has merely used one from time to time — knows what one of the key jobs is. It’s not getting a lot of pretty pictures up. Nor is it signing up as many banner ads as possible to pay for the site. Nor is it packing as much information as possible on the site’s home page.
No, one of the most important jobs is getting a decent search engine. One that winnows down the original request and takes the user where he or she wants to go. It’s an apparently simple idea: but, as we all know, it’s one that many websites do poorly. It is clearly something that many companies find quite difficult.
Okay. Now imagine you’ve got to effectively co-ordinate a search engine not just for a company, but for the entire public sector — central as well as local government. Suddenly the phrase “whole of government”, which has become something of a cliché in the mouths of some politicians, takes on a whole new and rather daunting meaning.
As a briefing paper to ministers earlier this year notes — with an almost audible sigh — “The business of government is complicated, and that is why e-government is not a simple, straightforward task”.
However, if the e-government project is to work, such a tool is essential. New Zealand’s e-government portal is formally being launched this month, and sitting behind that gateway to this country’s public sector is a couple of years’ work on getting the “metadata” issues right. The portal itself is vital to e-government.
“The existence of an authoritative government portal, capable of supporting activities at all four stages of e-government [that is, from the provision of information, through online interactions, transaction-based services and the transformation of the design and structures of government itself] is the most critical part of the e-government infrastructure,” ministers were told in a Cabinet paper last year.
The overall aim is to enable citizens to perform as many interactions with government agencies as possible online. A few key ideas sit behind this strategy, one of the most important being that the average citizen should not have to know which particular agency they need to go to — be that agency in central or local government.
A further driving force is to reduce the compliance costs for businesses in their dealings with government agencies. The same Cabinet paper quote above uses an Australian study to show that, as a conservative figure, the average New Zealand business could save anywhere between $1000 to $5000 a year in more streamlined dealings with public agencies.
Even if only half the companies in New Zealand use the portal, that is a saving to the economy of about $50 million a year.
While Treasury has suggested those figures could do with a little more analysis, there is — at this point — no comparable New Zealand study. For the private citizen, the Australian study estimated the cost savings would be in the region of $NZ20 per user per portal transaction. The main benefits for the first five years will be in the wider economy rather than in cost savings to the government itself.
At the centre of the development of the portal’s ability to search for government services is the NZGLS metadata standard — a system for describing government information and services. The development of this standard — “not very sexy, but vital” as one official puts it — has been carried out over the past two years between the e-government unit in Wellington and various other government agencies.
The standard is based closely on two well-established offshore metadata templates — the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set and the Australian Government Locator Service. “We didn’t’ create this from scratch,” says Brendan Kelly, a programme architect in the State Services Commission’s e-government unit. Where the New Zealand standard goes further than those two, however, is in setting out a metadata template for services. “That is an extension on the others — they have only looked at provision of information,” says Kelly.
The Dublin Core Group which devised and now maintains that particular standard is looking at incorporating the New Zealand approach. The other New Zealand innovation is the development of “subject” and “functions” theasauri. The range of information sources that have to be tied together in this standard can be gauged by the fact that there are 65 government agencies, and the e-government unit had, by the end of May, identified 1100 service descriptions and 2500 information resources. “That’s not a complete set, by a country mile,” says Kelly. “But it’s a core, it’s a start.”
The development of the metadata matches noun and verb — for example, “registering a car” but it also builds in preferred terms and non-preferred terms for each activity, says the e-government unit’s relationship manager, Andrea Gray. That means a user who keys in a non-preferred word can be steered towards what they might actually be asking for.
A further component has been the involvement of local government — often the Cinderellas of the public sector — in the project (see accompanying story). “We definitely wanted local government there,” says Kelly. A core group of councils held a preliminary series of meetings and discovered that about 90% of the local government services provided are the same, whether the council is in Rodney or Roxburgh. “The few differences might be in things like fire permits — different rules in different areas depending on climate and geography.”
It was felt quite strongly that a government internet portal without local government would be a two-legged stool. Many citizens do not know whether the service they want is performed by central or local government. A core idea behind the portal — indeed, behind the whole government project — is that the citizen does not need to know whether the service he or she is after is carried out by their local council, the Inland Revenue Department, ACC or whatever.
The development does provide some opportunity for revenue down the track. “The metaloge that has been developed — we own the code for of that,” says Kelly. “It is a unique resource and we will be leveraging that.” But the development partner was Gen-i. “We don’t want to be a vendor. That’s not what our job is, our job is to provide a government service.”
Further private sector involvement was considered by the government but rejected by Cabinet. Other options included developing the portal as a public-private partnership — something ministers have talked about in general terms in a number of areas but have thus far not embarked upon.
A further option was to use the metadata as a public resource but to provide it to various approved providers to encourage private sector development of New Zealand portals that include access to various government services. Yet another option was just to provide the metadata as a public good to all comers. These two appear to have been ruled out fairly quickly.
“Neither … would ensure the development and implementation of a new government portal that would support the goals of the e-government strategy,” one Cabinet paper argues. “Nor would they ensure the existence of an ‘authoritative’ government portal that would not be associated with unrelated commercial activity.”
And perhaps surprisingly, given that public-private partnerships have been touted as a way of reducing the cost of public sector infrastructure projects to the taxpayer, that latter option was seen as being more expensive than the government doing its own design and build.
Ministers also considered charging for access to the portal, either using fees per transaction, or a subscription model. The transaction model would have involved charging other government agencies, rather than end users, and would have discouraged them from going online — not the approach the government wishes to take right now.
The previous online access to government, the NZGO site, experimented with a subscription model but suffered a high number of users defaulting on payments. The cost of collecting subscriptions was also counter-productive. Another option was to upgrade the level of service provided on NZGO — which has been in existence since 1996. That, however, would have cost about half a million dollars, with a further half a million annually on operational costs.
Lesser agency drives standards
The public sector agencies have a kind of informal — but for Wellingtonians highly recognisable — pecking order. Treasury tends to be ranked at the top, with the mega-agencies of Social Development (formerly WINZ), Inland Revenue and Education next.
Well down the bottom in any pecking order are the government agencies, known as “Crown entities”, without full departmental or ministry status. Yet one of those, the Land Transport Safety Authority, has played a fairly major role in development of the metadata that sits behind the e-government portal.
“E-government is still only mandated for departments,” says LTSA chief information officer Tony West. “It’s kind of strongly recommended for other agencies, while local government is only encouraged to take part in the projects.”
Yet the LTSA has more impact on most New Zealanders than most agencies. “The number of car owners, and drivers, in New Zealand is such that we deal with most New Zealanders,” says West.
That made the LTSA’s involvement in the project crucial. What made it even more important was the fact that it had already carried out a great deal of the metadata work in conjunction with the Justice sector.
The LTSA sits at a kind of bureaucratic crossroads between the transport sector and the Justice sector. “We are a virtual organisation, really,” says West. “There are fewer than 500 of us, and we have, for a long time, had to work out the best way to work collaboratively with other organisations, both in the public and the private sector.”
In the transport area, the LTSA works with Transit New Zealand, Transfund, Police, the Maritime Safety Authority, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Health sector. There are spill-overs into the Justice sector as well, through the Police and also the departments of Courts and Corrections. “To take the leadership in road safety in the country, we’ve had to work collaboratively with them.”
The work with the Justice sector had already led to substantial development of metadata material before the e-government portal came along, says West. “Sometimes these things grow because a need such as the portal comes along. And sometimes there is another catalyst. In the Justice sector, the catalyst was the migration to the law enforcement system.”
That work had already reached the point of common data definitions and a common data dictionary for all the agencies across the sector, says West. “With that work, we represented the Ministry of Transport as well as the LTSA — we run the motor vehicle registration for MOT as well as the drivers’ licence register for ourselves. So it was comparatively easy when e-government came along.”
Note that “comparatively”. West does not minimise the work involved. “It’s a question of how you define a service — it’s almost a whole new language to learn. We had to learn it first because we were first. But what that did is make sure the rest of the sector could learn about our experience. While we couldn’t tell other agencies how to, for example, write about pilot licences or shipping licences, we could tell them how we wrote our licences and the sorts of things we did.”
The whole process is akin to writing a dictionary, West says. He cites a recent history of the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary, The Surgeon of Crowthorne. “They had to get all these people to read libraries full of books to find the first use of a particular word in a particular way. On a smaller scale, that’s what we had to do — work out how you define a government service, how you write it out, how you structure it and present it.”
The other reason the LTSA had something of a leg-up on this kind of work is its “virtual” nature. For example. New Zealanders do not go to an LTSA office to get their drivers‘ licences. Those are picked up at agents’ offices, usually the AA or Vehicle Testing New Zealand.
“That’s a very different structure to, say, WINZ. And motor vehicle registration and licensing is carried out by other agents — principally New Zealand Post. So we had some experience at working with other agencies and working out a common approach to services.
For the e-government portal itself, a starting question was defining a service and then proceeding on the assumption that the person requesting the service didn’t know anything about it.
“What the portal has to do is work through how they understand what they are asking for — when they get to the point where it should tell them what they have to do and point them at the resources. The resources can be as simple as a phone number or email address, a website or an agent — any one of a number of service delivery channels or where you can get information.”
So the portal contains links to the LTSA site, allowing, for example, users to get a new drivers‘ licence, renew an existing one, upgrade it or replace the lost licence. “It might take you to the page where you can get the service you want, or it might point you to an 0800 number or an agent. Basically the portal is a huge search engine. And the metadata drives that search engine.”
Customer-driven view avoids pitfalls
Taking a customer’s-eye view of local government has helped a group of Auckland councils avoid more than a few pitfalls on the road to e-government.
The region’s eight councils have been working out how they can improve citizens’ access to the various services provided across the area. “Interoperability between councils is the hard bit,” says North Shore City Council CIO Tony Rogers.
“That’s why we decided ‘Let’s not go there’. That would only have got us into turf wars.” And anyone who has taken even a casual interest in Auckland local body politics during the past couple of decades will know that such turf wars are fairly endemic.
“What we decided to do was come at it from the customer’s perspective. We wanted to provide a unified view of the local body services. We figured that in time the back-office technology would sort itself out. Technology is advancing with XML and the like. In time, it won’t matter whether people are running SAP or PeopleSoft. People get hung up a lot on that systems stuff, and it’s not always particularly productive.”
The drive to link in the council’s services came from the chief executives of the region’s eight local bodies. E-government in the local government sector was, a few years ago, “almost a greenfields area”, says Rogers. That meant the risk of all eight councils going off and doing their own thing, with unnecessary duplication of costs, was a real prospect.
“It’s given us an opportunity to work together to introduce this concept of metadata and have a standard approach across the region. What could have happened was that each council could have employed a consultant to develop their own standards and approach.”
What grew out of a working party set up just over 18 months ago is a regional portal with links in to the eight council websites. The portal itself has 20 main content areas — an agenda for upcoming council meetings, minutes, council events and some history of their respective areas.
“There are also regional issues like transport and urban growth and so on — draft management plans which can be downloaded, and the like.”
Work underway on a regional basis has included a generic list of local authority services. That list contains about 120 services thus far, with more to come.
The Auckland portal — which will be linked in to the central e-government portal — is not exactly small beer, although, like the central government unit, those working on the project do not have a large budget for their work. “In Auckland we cover a third of the population, so it’s quite a sizeable amount of data. We also have at least a third of the country’s property movements.”
Like the central government unit’s effort, the metadata standards for the Auckland group are based on the NZGLS standard.
“The metadata describes an activity and a subject — for example, ‘fixing’ is an activity and ‘pothole’ is a subject. It means there’s a common language to describe services being used across the multiple local government agencies. And if central and local government use the same language it makes the lot of Joe Citizen a lot easier.”
It is not an uncommon observation that many people do not know, or care, whether the service they are after is carried out by central or local government. What is less commonly known, but at least as much of an issue, is that many citizens do not know which local authority they live under.
That gap in civic knowledge, plus the fact that a considerable proportion of local body work is carried out by the regional council rather than the territorial local authority, adds to the value of the various bodies running their work through a common portal.
The effort of putting the metadata together has also helped the councils identify and prioritise which services they would deliver across the web, says Rogers. “We’ve thus been able to synchronise delivery of those services across the eight councils.”

Written by Rob Hosking31 Aug. 02 22:00

The pain and the gain

“It’s a change and it’s a challenge and often it hurts you.” That is the blunt summary of SAP’s director of public services, Dietmar Pfaehler, discussing e-government.
Pfaehler was in New Zealand to talk about e-government and related issues with senior public servants, members of parliament and the information technology industry.

Written by Rob Hosking31 May 02 22:00

Here’s the buzz

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 went live on July 14, 1995 — Bastille Day, for those with a taste for historical ironies.

Written by Rob Hosking31 May 02 22:00