Maria Robertson seems a quintessential New Zealander. Sure, she is understated, polite and friendly – the type of person you can easily imagine going for a coffee with (or something stronger) – but her open and welcoming approach belies her passion for perfection and her determination to break new ground – especially when it comes to improving citizen outcomes.
Based in the Department of Internal Affairs, Robertson serves as deputy chief executive for service delivery and operations, a role that places her at the very heart of the government machine. “I oversee all of the identity and life services for every New Zealander and everyone who wants to become a New Zealander,” she explains. “This covers births, death, marriage, citizenship, passports, identity, and a range of other things.”
This in itself certainly ensures long days in the office, but Robertson is doing more than just focusing on the day-to-day. Instead, she is at the forefront of efforts to “reimagine” New Zealand’s public services to ensure they are fit for purpose for the future, and not just the present.
“Yesterday’s challenge was how to digitise the product and make the transaction easier,” she says. “But tomorrow’s problem is access – access to an automated, predictive, intelligent platform that allows the public and private sectors to seamlessly interact, to present a specific, individualised service to the citizen that reflects their life and their circumstances.”
So, how has she been getting on?
It’s important to point out that Robertson is building on the strong work of her predecessors. New Zealand has long been blazing a trail for all things digital – something she is herself quick to stress. “We have run an innovative sector for a long time,” she says. “We had the world’s first and still only true end-to-end online passport service, where you can renew and apply for a new passport and then receive it within two or three days.”
Such feats – while impressive – are not seen as an excuse to press pause, however. Robertson and her colleagues across government are very aware that time and technological advances tick on, and this means that public services have to continue to evolve – particularly in light of the smartphone revolution. “I was watching one of my sons play basketball the other day, and I saw a new mother with a very young baby on her chest, but she had her phone in her hand and she was attending to some life admin,” she recalls.
“I thought this was symbolic of how most of us live our lives and how we are trying to do a multitude of things at any given time. We are still asking people to engage with agencies as single entities that deliver a specific set of products and services. If we were to take a different approach and think about circumstance or a certain life event, it would help us think about how we might completely reimagine public services. This is because we have had to ‘reimagine’ what our own lives look like in terms of managing every day.”
This fundamental rethinking of public services – what they look like, how they should be made available – means that a mere digitisation of services would not suffice. It was time to think bigger – much bigger. “We haven’t set out to create a new government digital agency or take our existing business and computerise it,” says Robertson. “Instead, we set out to rethink and reimagine what truly improved access looked like, because it is access to public services that people find difficult, as they don’t know what agency to go to, or because a service is not online or in their local area, or if they have a particular vulnerability or need. This is more complex than any individual transaction can address.”
What’s your circumstance?
Underpinning the new approach has been the recognition that public services should be reimagined not through the product lens – like a birth certificate or passport – but through an individual’s personal circumstance and the reason they are interacting with government in the first place. “It is not sufficient any more for us to have the world’s first online passport service,” says Robertson. “We have since been striving to understand how and why people access these services, understanding why they want or need a passport in order to create a better, more tailored experience.”
As a result, New Zealand is currently in the midst of creating a new ecosystem for connecting citizens. It’s not about a simple supplier relationship any more, but rather like the relationship one has with Amazon or Uber – tailored services that are consumed in a similar way.
“I don’t like ‘government as a platform’, as we don’t want government to be seen as the sole provider,” says Robertson. “But we are about to start a global search for a partner who will create an Amazon/Uber style platform from which citizens can access public services. We need a partner who knows how to capture, use, analyse and present data about an individual, which can be presented back to the individual alongside the specific service that reflects their circumstance – and to remember that person.”
To illustrate her point, she cites the example of a mother of two young boys who is a lone parent. “She lives in a part of New Zealand where incomes are low, school is jam-packed, and English is not necessarily the first language for 50 percent of the students,” says Robertson. “In these circumstances, we know that there is a 95 percent chance that those two children at age seven or eight will need additional support with their reading. The mother should be able to describe and then automatically have reading support in her local area presented back to her. This is the vision for public services.”
Using this vision, the government has identified and mapped out 30 of the most common life events that give people the most difficulty or inconvenience. One example is how they have reimagined the way new parents interact with government after the birth of a new child – christened “SmartStart”. New parents struggle to navigate multiple agencies to access the services and information they need – not only in New Zealand but in many other countries as well. They often find themselves repeatedly giving out the same information – from registering with a midwife to enrolling their child into preschool, and those who urgently need to register their baby’s birth to access support services can find the process cumbersome.
“We wanted to make it much easier for parents and caregivers to access relevant information and services for themselves and their babies,” says Robertson. “So we created new customer-centric, cross-agency digital tools and processes. While we are the lead agency, we are working alongside colleagues from the Inland Revenue, Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Health to make it a reality.”
The New Zealand government has pledged that, by 2025, citizens will need to spend less effort accessing public services, will have more automated criteria-related entitlements, and will benefit from integrated public services around specific life events.
Robertson is confident, but injects one note of caution. “We don’t want to get stuck in ‘solution mode’,” she warns. “I spend a lot of time debating with technology architects about solutions, but I’m not so interested in beautifully presented wireframes. What we are most interested in is the capability that is going to exist for our citizens, and how it will grow and develop and emerge.”
And that’s exactly why she makes no secret of the fact she is on the hunt for new ideas, approaches and collaboration from partners outside the public sector. “If we are truly serious about citizen-centricity and putting the citizen at the centre of the design, then we must look in the consumer world for the parallels, follow their lead and, more importantly, invite those providers to the table,” she concludes. “Those providers also have an inherent interest in public service, releasing the productivity of the public and supporting a digital economy both now and in the future.”
How she and her colleagues get on over the next few years will be of huge interest – and not just to New Zealanders.
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