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Article Article May 25th, 2015

Power to the people: New Zealand's story of digital transformation

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Richard Foy: We have a different digital experience to many other countries

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Richard Foy: The key was to focus on where would really drive outcomes

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Richard Foy: The idea of a true citizen relationship with government is quite enduring

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Where are you reading this? Perhaps you're at home or at your desk? Or on your daily commute? Maybe you're in between meetings or at the airport. Wherever you are, your smart mobile device is likely to be within reach. In our world of apps, tablets, cloud computing and social networks, you're one of billions of people now connected across our planet via an ever-expanding list of platforms and software systems.

The digital revolution has penetrated deep into business and society, bridging generational divides and bringing countries, communities and individuals ever closer together. Governments, too, are seeking to tap into this richly transformative seam. Today's policymakers are increasingly reliant on technology to deliver their public services and some are also using it to make open government a genuine reality. With voters now able to shop or bank online at any time of the day or night, they should now expect nothing less from their public services - a fact long recognised by Richard Foy, General Manager for Digital Transformation in New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs.

“New Zealand has some unique conditions and some capabilities in the system that enable us to deliver a different digital experience to what many other countries are trying to do,” he says. “We are looking at it from the outside in. We undertook some customer research last year to really understand citizen ‘pain points' and their service journey with government. This has underpinned our new push towards integrated services and digital delivery - there is an opportunity to integrate and generate value using the digital environment.”

A results business

Foy's is by no means a lone voice among his fellow countrymen and women. New Zealand has, in many ways, spearheaded the global public sector's push for the digitalisation of services. In 2012, its government set 10 challenging ‘Key Results' for the public sector to achieve over the next five years, one of which - ‘Result 10' - was for New Zealanders to be able to ‘complete their transactions with government easily in a digital environment'. Foy, who leads Result 10, says that it wasn't about saving money, but more about enhancing service delivery.

“The key was to focus on where would really drive outcomes and improvement for New Zealanders and the New Zealand economy,” he points out. “We never emphasised outcomes like reduced cost of services or savings - but these would be by-products of better outcomes for New Zealanders.” An early sign of things to come was the successful introduction of a new online passport system: within two years 300,000 had been renewed online - 40.3% of all adult renewals, and growing.

Much emphasis has been placed on how agencies can deliver better services while at the same time working together to explore opportunities, share capabilities and overcome common challenges. An abiding ambition, though, has been to place customers at the centre of service design and delivery. In practice, this means changing the way government orchestrates and delivers services around their requirements at different points of their lives - a life events model.

“Our research told us that people had to deal with a number of government agencies during critical life events and transitions, and it was of increasing frustration that we were just so fragmented in our service offering,” says Foy. “They continually had to repeat themselves, and it's not just about providing identity information, it also involved other requirements around determining eligibility for various entitlements - government wasn't looking at it from a customer perspective.”

Surprisingly, the research also found that demographic background is less significant than expected in determining how people experience public services. “We found that if you have to deal with more government agencies then you are more likely to have a poor experience with government,” adds Foy. “We need to make sure that when we improve it for a certain customer segment, like a parent around a certain life event, when they transition to a different context it is connected and underpinned by the same design, interactions and data.”

Foy and his colleagues are working on transforming the first life event, 'Birth of a Child‘, which is a collaboration between the Departments of Internal Affairs and Internal Revenue, and the Ministries of Health and Social Development. They are co-designing the new service with a variety of expectant parents to design a service offering that enhances their interaction with government leading up to childbirth, and then provides online access to their subsequent entitlements.

“It's a pretty unnatural way for us to do things,” admits Foy. “We have taken the first step and launched our Birth Registration Online Service, and take-up has exceeded our expectations. We have decided to do this from the outside in, and prioritise the customer needs, and have these agencies work together. We want to use this as a start-up example and then run other initiatives through a similar process. The next one is likely to be based on immigration and we are also doing some work in the social services sector, getting one of the agencies there to look at the life event of when someone retires.”

RealMe, real progress

So, how has New Zealand sought to put this thinking into practice?

Underpinning this new approach is a new capability, RealMe, which enables New Zealanders to quickly and securely prove their identity online and access more than 50 government services with the convenience of just one username and password. The service is designed to protect users' privacy and security, so they can login in many places to different organisations across the public and private sectors. With a RealMe verified identity, users can share identity and address information online with participating organisations such as their bank, for example, or other financial services organisations.

“It's a system-wide asset that is quite sophisticated and reasonably unique, when compared to other jurisdictions,” describes Foy, who pinpoints the system's ability to offer a secure identity and to enable joined-up services as its critical features. “We are trying to get this delivery model into other agencies' transformation projects. We're working with ministers to ensure agencies incorporate and prioritise this in their plans, as well as driving the broader uptake around RealMe.”

Citizens first, and always

Ministers have set a 2017 deadline for public services to be ‘radically transformed' for the benefit of all New Zealanders, and there is little doubt that Foy and his team are keen to keep up the momentum towards better, faster digital services. “The opportunity for us is different to other jurisdictions, which are still just driving up digital services within quite narrow silos and are not yet taking a really cohesive and joined-up approach for the citizen,” he says. “The idea of a true citizen account or citizen relationship with government is quite enduring, taking into account different life events and how government treats the citizen as the same person.”

The initial target of the key result area was to get 70% of New Zealanders' most common transactions with government done digitally by 2017. And certainly, the sight of more and more citizens choosing to perform transactions online or via other digital services, rather than at the counter, contact centre or post, will tell a powerful story in itself. Foy, though, is not taking anything for granted. “What we're working on right now is redefining the way we measure our performance to incorporate service experience and satisfaction with service experience, as well as how well government is joined up.”

With the ministerial spotlight remaining intense, Foy goes on to say that the ability to point to real, clear-cut examples of progress will be important. “We need to be able to report back to Cabinet and to the public to say that we are seeing a shift in this,” he points out. “The best way to do this is the actual delivery of these life events initiatives and get them out the door.”

Formal or not, based on the track record so far, there is little doubt that New Zealanders are well-placed to reap the digital benefits of such efforts, both now and into the future.



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  • Online, on track? Miguel Carrasco looks at how policymakers can improve the delivery of digital services
  • Making numbers count. The application of big data can support smart decision-making in government, says Doug Beal
  • Core workouts. With governments increasingly seeking to transform their core systems, Andrew Arcuri explains how they can move from achieving good results, to truly great
  • Digital dawn. It may not be obvious, but US policymakers have had an important role to play in the creation of today's digital era, says David Dean

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