Friday, March 10, 2006

Peter Griffin: Online Census shows e-government here to stay

Taking part in the inaugural online Census on Tuesday was surprisingly pleasant.

In the time some people spent arguing over what ethnicity box to tick or if they should burn their form in protest at the options, I'd completed my questionnaire and filed it online.

I wasn't expecting it to go so smoothly. The Government doesn't have a great track record in IT and I left it pretty late - 9 o'clock on Census night, when the site was probably under considerable load.

But it actually worked like a dream and the whole venture seems to have been a success for Statistics New Zealand. About 250,000 people filed online, saving officers from returning to a large number of households to collect handwritten forms.

It had me asking why more government interactions couldn't be handled this easily online. It turns out many of them already are, but you're unlikely to have noticed.

The stand-out government departments, in terms of their readiness to interact with the masses online, are Inland Revenue, Land Information and the fines collection arm of the Justice Department.

Inland Revenue was an early entrant into e-government with its ir-file system for collecting information from companies online, and the options are much wider these days. Through www.ird.govt.nz, users can file personal and company tax returns and pay child support and student loans. As the March 31 end of the financial year approaches, this is one website that will be getting plenty of attention, unenthusiastic as it may be.

If you're worried about your company's financial information disappearing over the internet, you can set up secure email transfer between your computer and Inland Revenue. A user ID and password is issued to the user, to be entered with any information sent, and the contents of the email are also encrypted.

At Land Information New Zealand (linz.govt.nz), users can access land titles for the entire country. The department's Skylight service also lets users order and pay for documents and receive digital certificates online. The site's databases are vast and searchable online.

On the Department of Conservation's website, users can book a trek on the Milford Track. At Fish and Game New Zealand, which has a statutory mandate to manage New Zealand's freshwater sports fisheries and gamebird hunting, hunting licences can be bought.

The Companies Office has annoyed me by starting to charge for access to documents that for years was completely free. But the site, an early example of what e-government can achieve, is a great source of information, easy to use, and the charges are not too hefty.

The Accident Compensation Corporation and the Earthquake Commission, not surprisingly, have less of a useful online presence. They want to look you in the eye to see if you're lying when you put in a claim.

The Auckland City Council is also a leader when it comes to e-Government. The site has a good balance of useful information and the payment options are extensive - users can re-register their dogs online or pay parking fines, for example.

While individual government departments and some local bodies are forging ahead in e-government, the site tying all the Government's online pages (egovt.nz) still seems like a bit of a dog's breakfast. It's had a makeover recently, which has helped, but it's still easier to find information by surfing to the individual government websites or even doing a Google search.

The most recent report on e-government, published last year, said the egovt.nz website was attracting 22,000 visitors a week. That doesn't appear to be unique users, and with thousands of bureaucrats in Wellington likely to be accessing the site regularly as part of their job, the general public's interaction looks to be very modest.

Government web guidelines, which guarantee minimum standards of website accessibility, became mandatory in January. The Government has said that by June 2007, "networks and internet technologies will be integral to the delivery of government information, services and processes".

It will probably hit that target. A lot fuzzier is the goal for June 2010, where the "operation of government will have been transformed through its use of the internet".

That's a pretty broad statement and one the Government is reconsidering as part of a $125,000 e-government review, expected to be completed by midyear.

When you start looking, you'll be surprised at just how much e-government there already is. But for the Government to achieve its lofty goals, people will have to know the services are there - and they'll have to be willing to use them.

Winning the hearts and minds of the public is just as important as building the actual systems.

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