More for Less Government is Many to One

Posted on 08/10/2018 by Shane Middlemiss

This article suggests an approach to online government that is not bleeding edge but novel enough to make a radical difference to most Kiwis as well as the public purse. In these belt-tightening times for the public sector it is timely to look under the surface at opportunities for practical more-for-less government. E-government has been around for a while but it has stalled a little at the conversion of its current information and services which then sit unloved in agency repositories. A serious shakeup is warranted. This view stems from an assessment of the quality of NZ government websites in the facets of cross-organisation integration and personalisation.

Cross-organisation integration is the extent to which the information and services for an audience are clustered together online not just sitting isolated in agency silos. The Web and its hyperlinks between organisations’ websites can do this easily. Every significant audience of government whether it be road users, Pacific Island students, kiwifruit growers, or school board parents, should quite reasonably expect to see their content clustered together irrespective of which agencies are involved. Government’s agencies at local, regional or central level are supposed to be non-competitive and should have nothing preventing their cooperation.

Without cross-organisation, online users of the 1000 or so NZ government websites are obliged to go to each and every one of the relevant sites that deal with them. For say six sites, that means six different navigation systems, search results formats and content styles to learn, comprehend and navigate through. A lot of wasted time and the risk of missing something. Why not a single web space for each audience where each agency contributes its content (filling gaps and removing overlaps) within one navigation, search and style? It is not technically difficult or expensive; in fact, it is easy to do if they want to. But could that be the problem?

Personalisation is related but different. It is the extent to which the content of any website, e.g. government information and services) is matched to the interests and needs of the user; at the easy end as a group and at the harder end as an individual. It uses knowledge of interests and roles and then suggests content of potential interest. This capability greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio. Most people will be familiar with the personalisation offered behind their bank or Trade Me auction accounts. It can be technically challenging like when you are dealing with music or movie preferences but in government it usually just takes good editing and the willingness to do it. And that could be the problem.

It is when cross-organisation integration and personalisation are brought together, that lie radically novel and cost-effective possibilities for government services delivery. For each user group all relevant content from all government and other organisations is matched to the preferences of what the individual user wants right now. Rather than the one-to-many delivery of standalone, ‘silo’ agencies, government as a whole has the chance to provide, what I call, many-to-one delivery. It is not enough to have good transactions, e-services, or apps if they are orphaned out of a bigger picture. Great content alone will not bring about wholesale channel-shifting without context. All agencies involved need to work together to tailor these coherent interactive channels that deliver content in context.

Within these spaces the information and services needs of government’s stakeholders would be brought together - something never done before. Stakeholder users are engaged from their initial registration, through assessment of requirements and offers of useful applications and utilities, to fulfillment by transactions. With deeper engagement and corresponding trust comes the possibility of co-creation and collaboration between government and the governed. Social networking in these arenas has a purpose especially if directed to participation in e-consultation on issues that affect the flaxroots.

This is transformative thinking. It is smart seamless government. It creates delightful user experiences that make a difference in people’s lives. And no rocket surgery is required. No risky, deep pockets investment. Mostly just hyperlinks, a secure login facility and representatives from different agencies sitting down together agreeing on a common vision and timeframe. Senior managers, Ministers and Mayors signing off on joint initiatives for outstanding digital public service. And that could be the problem.

So where is the New Zealand Government at in this move toward online nirvana - now least 15 years since most of the Government’s websites first started? As a government online strategy consultant and now government website quality assessor I thought I’d take stock and find out.

The method was pretty simple: select a good enough sample of government websites and evaluate them for cross-organisation integration and personalisation on a 10 point scale for each. We ended up with 150 sites assessed. No one knows exactly how many government sites there are but Internal Affairs estimates between 600 and 1000 in total. So our sample should be about 15 to 25% of all government sites.

Chart of government sites assessed for personalisation and integration

The results speak for themselves. Way too many (83%) were standalone, silo websites: one-to-many. There were some (8%) personalised sites for individual organisations (often education providers with student accounts) and about the same number (7%) of cross-organisation sites but without any tailoring, and only three (or 2%) that could be considered many-to-one sites. Full credit goes to, the trip planning site; Te Kete Ipurangi (TKI), the teachers and education resources site, and the Government Jobs site.

The stakeholders of government web space are clearly not being well served overall. Every incomplete or confusing web interaction just increases the chance people will go to the hugely more expensive phone or office visit alternatives. On average, phone transactions cost ten times more than the online equivalent and face-to-face interactions cost around thirty times more than online; which are the automatic fallbacks when things get confusing or incomplete online. This is where hundreds of millions of precious post-quake public dollars are invisibly going up in smoke each year.

I’d certainly like to see some gaps filled here. Imagine:

  • people planning building or renovations getting stepped through the complex processes of consents, energy-saving guidance, Building Act issues, and good practices one-on-one
  • entrepreneurs mentored with skills development and training simulations, free or shared-cost business applications, networking with peers, suppliers and buyers
  • people running into legal troubles being steered toward DIY document templates, situation-specific advice, etc., reducing the demands on costly Legal Aid
  • statutory board candidates being groomed for roles, e-learning in director’s skills, virtual boardroom simulations and incidentally a complete database of board memberships to avoid conflicts of interest
  • community organisation administrators able to get access to free Web-based management systems for memberships, communications, accounting, project management, etc., as well as coordinated funding application and reporting systems
  • a single place where citizens could register their interests and roles and be matched with upcoming consultations that affect them from any organisation in government and where they can see the proposed policy’s effects for their situation or a simulated view of the new building, e.g. prison, wind turbine, school, etc from their backyard

To make these and numerous other potential many-to-one spaces happen it will probably come down to overcoming government’s ‘cultural’ issues. I’ve seen outstanding business cases for many-to-one initiatives dissolve due to inter-agency rivalry or a generation of usually older executives not ‘getting’ the new media options. Government agency managers have also been very precious about guarding ‘their’ services delivery channels. Small agencies fear big agency takeover. Big ones want to do it their way. If user-championing facilitators could shepherd the right government policy wonks, IT geeks and operations people to design many-to-one spaces together with their end users who knows what could happen.

How much does the NZ government spend on services delivery a year? Probably close to $40 billion or $10,000 for every child, woman and man. I, for one, would prefer to see more of my allocation spent in a smart way rather than continuing to plough it into glossy publications, ‘press 2 for service’ phone systems or service centre re-carpeting. How about you? If anywhere close to the 98% of isolated non-coordination found in this survey exists at the wider state level how much could be saved in citizens shifting to online channels and eliminating the gaps and overlaps? Much more work needs doing, not least a decent economic analysis. The technical issues are relatively trivial. It is mostly the want of vision and will.

The world is flattening through online capabilities. And user expectations for high quality online delivery are rising. There may not be stakeholders marching in the streets with placards demanding ‘Personalise Now!’ or ‘I ♥ M-2-1’ so pressure will have to come from elsewhere. If the Government resists getting with the program it will be missing a golden opportunity for a paradigm shift in cost-effectiveness and will continue to secretly fund millions of dollars in low-value call centres, printed publications and service centres. The time is well overdue for smart services delivery from government that is many-to-one.