Citizen-driven and tech enabled: New Zealand’s very civil service

Published on the 19/06/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson

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If you, like a great many New Zealanders, were born and grew up in a country other than this one, you might have the opportunity to compare government service delivery between your old country and your new one. For former South Africans like me, direct experience tells us that the Kiwi civil service is light years ahead. Anecdotally, those from the United Kingdom, the USA and India, for example, routinely share their horror stories of government engagement, and marvel at the capabilities and experiences which can be expected in New Zealand.

And yes, recent citizens tend to shake our heads at the frustrations of born and bred Kiwis frustrated with the pace of things. Without the point of reference of truly awful government services, it’s impossible to appreciate how well, comparatively, things are done here.

Which is not to say that it can’t or shouldn’t be done better. It can and should – and there are people working hard to do exactly that.

Sitting down with iStart on the sidelines of last week’s CIO Summit, government CTO Tim Occleshaw was pretty cheerful. After all, three government CIOs made the final selection for CIO of the Year, and one, Richard Kay, would go on to win it.

“We’re looking to deliver the future of digital government; we’re achieving progress on that, fostering and developing a digital ecosystem in New Zealand which is centrally-led and collaboratively delivered,” said Occleshaw.

He explained that the approach taken by the Kiwi civil service is somewhat different to that which applies in most countries, which have central controls.

Controls are all well and good, but they tend to come at the expense of agility and ability to execute on differing priorities and approaches. “We haven’t gone down that path. We’ve got a very citizen-driven approach and my role is to be an enabler and facilitator. I’m not there to regulate and be a gatekeeper; I’ll get involved early in strategy and planning, and will give support [to departmental CIOs] to help shift government IT departments from for example building code, and on to consuming services.”

The ‘partnership’ model, and the creation of central shared services which can be drawn upon by the various departments of the civil service, said Occleshaw, works particularly well and is enabling government departments to ‘transform themselves and celebrate their own successes’.

The ‘loose reins’, he added, extends to where mandates exist for core agencies which are compelled to consume ‘preapproved’ services – to make sure that those services accurately meet needs. “There has to be some flexibility, because if there is something else out there that better meets needs, it has to be used. But that can be difficult, as it requires the public sector to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, we can’t do everything and we can’t own everything. We need to accept that others can innovate better.”

Tracking a moving target (and inspiration is everywhere)
While pleased to hear from the perspective of ‘citizen iStart’ that the civil service is generally doing a pretty sharp job, Occleshaw was quick to note that service delivery improvement is a moving target. “We could always do more and I think we’d all hate to lose sight of that.”

And a big part of the approach is to do things the way citizens do them, and not the way government departments might. Occleshaw points to IRD as an example. “They are doing things the way accounting firms and businesses do, and not how the IRD has traditionally wanted to. Or, take passports; the turnaround [of four or five days, without having to leave one’s desk] is handled completely from a customer point of view.” That’s a world-leading capability, by the way.

Some of that success is owing to the civil service approach to implementing technology based on customer personas and a careful examination of customer journeys. But there is more to it than that; structurally, New Zealand has several advantages. Practically universal internet penetration is one of those advantages; it implies a somewhat sophisticated citizenry which has the tools and the nous to not only seek and therefore drive electronic engagement, but also to use electronic services when provided.

“New Zealand is typically an early adopter of technology [in business and by private citizens]. That fundamental is a huge enabler in our ability to deliver digital services – but we are very conscious of not leaving people behind,” Occleshaw confirmed. In other words, ‘analogue’ failovers are in place for those who can’t access online services.

The small size of the population is another factor which enables government to roll things out faster; this was confirmed by IRD CTO Gary Baird in an ‘en passant’ chat with iStart on the floor of the CIO Summit. Baird also reinforced Occleshaw’s assertion that IRD is taking a business focused approach, referring to taxpayers as ‘clients’, and quoting service KPIs such as first call resolution moving from 15 to 60 percent.

Going even further, Occleshaw explained that the civil service keeps a close eye on innovative companies as a source of inspiration. “Every time Air New Zealand or one of the banks, for example, does something that makes their customers go ‘that’s fantastic’, people expect that government will quickly follow.”

There is a definite sense of hope that the civil service is on the right track; but, then, ponder the cost of such progress. With Government IT costs measured at a staggering $48,500 per employee at departments such as MBIE, and the IRD transformation project variously priced at $1.0 – $1.5 billion, this digital citizenry sure doesn’t come cheap.

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