- Maria Robertson is on a mission to transform and “reimagine” New Zealand’s public services. From her role at the Department of Internal Affairs, she is focused on improving New Zealanders’ myriad interactions with their government.
- Citizens now expect in real time that service providers, whether they’re government or non-government, are meeting their needs and giving them the options to make choices – policymakers must adapt to this change.
- For Robertson, it is crucial that those working in government go out and talk to people in different circumstances and with different perspectives to get a comprehensive design philosophy.
As the deputy chief executive for service delivery and operations in New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs, Maria Robertson is at the forefront of efforts to “reimagine” the country’s public services.
We caught up with her recently to hear about her approach to delivery, how to make government more effective and the art of achieving a positive impact.
Can you tell us about your department and role? What are the main priorities?
The department is a collection of a lot of things. We do births, deaths, marriages, citizenship, passports, a whole lot of things. We also have the national library, national archive, well censorship compliance and all that sort of stuff.
It sounds like a disparate group of things, but in my view, it’s really about the quality of this thing called New Zealand and our national identity, and making sure that that national identity, in a positive sense, is not eroded or undermined by things like gambling or censorship that takes away from the positivity of our identity.
My job itself is really about the identity of individuals and their families, those connections formally recorded, changes in the family situation delivered or accessed, plus communities, more generally, as a part of New Zealand’s social fabric.
So in my job, we have about 10 million interactions with New Zealand citizens of people wanting to become citizens each year. And so that, in itself, is, I guess, a reason why, why for me, impact and access to services has become such a prominent part of my own career aspiration and what I want for our future.
Why does it matter when government is ineffective?
It matters when government’s ineffective because we end up applying our skills in the wrong places. If we apply a cookie cutter, or we have a common practice across all types of need, I think we end up spreading ourselves too thinly. And we end up in people’s lives where they don’t really want us to be, and we’re not as much in people’s lives where they need us to be.
I think that matters because no one has been satisfied. No one really gets what they need or want in the way that they want it. I think too, that if we’re ineffective, we just operate like a bunch of individual product deliverers rather than a system of service, which is actually what government is. It’s a system of service. It’s public service. And if we’re ineffective, we’re simply a collection of product deliverers.
What’s the first thing you think government should be doing to improve the impact of its policies?
I think government around the world has, in a very short space of time, confronted the change in societal behaviour where society or the public used to be policy takers.
In other words, the elected members would effectively determine policy settings for the country or the community. And they would do that off the back of a very long period of advice from public officials, lots of consideration of options, getting really bound up in the legislative process. And that could take years. And eventually legislation would be produced and come into force, but then the operational people in government would then have to implement. The citizen really got what popped out the end.
And then back probably five to seven years ago, we moved into almost being technology driven. So the IT people were deciding what the citizen was going to get out the end. But that assumed that the existing practice was right – we just needed to computerize or digitise it.
Well, what’s really happening now is that the citizen or the consumer or the customer is actually demanding, in real time, that service providers, whether they’re government or non-government, are meeting their needs quite immediately and giving people options to make choices.
Amazon and eBay, Google, and Facebook, all of these major platforms are so oriented to the customer or the consumer. They give you choice. They remember you. They know you. They can predict things about you based on previous behaviour.
Consumers are very used to that, expecting that in the consumer world, and are demanding that in a public policy setting, or a public service world as well. And so the biggest change that I would like to see is that we do truly orient ourselves towards the consumer way of being as opposed to anchoring ourselves back in the policy way of being where it was policy driven. It’s now has to be individually driven.
Do you think there’s a way that government can best structure itself to deliver impactful policies?
We can always be better. But I think in part, we have to consider government to be, if you like, a supply chain. I mean government at large as a system of public service. Policy, technology, practice, workforce planning, all of these things have to be set up to be part of a supply chain that has to respond very quickly and immediately to the need that’s being presented at an individual level.
We’ve done this in New Zealand quite effectively. And essentially it’s been, my colleagues, my peers, committing to working together, really actively working together to actually design the services around individuals.
A good example is that 15 months ago, we launched SmartStart, which is the integrated service around having a baby. They used to have to go and stand in an office with a new born baby and fill in forms just to get what they were entitled to. Now, they can get what they’re entitled to without the indignity, and the inconvenience, and the pain, or the discomfort, or whatever, of actually leaving their home with their baby. That, for me, is the biggest achievement. When we solve problems like that, then we’re on to the right model of service delivery.
Same with end of life. We’ve done the same thing around the end of life, which is, of course, really challenging. My team went out and talked to people who were terminally ill. They talked to palliative care providers. They talked to oncologists. They talked to family members who just lost someone, lawyers, you name it. They talked to them to actually really understand the need. That’s so critical, so critical. That’s got nothing to do with the architecture. It’s the design philosophy.
And why do you think that’s critical to effectiveness?
Because that’s actually what we’re here for. We’re here to design and deliver public services. Government exists for a couple of reasons. One is to control behaviour, and the other is to deliver services, to act as a bit of a safety net. When you boil those two things down, if we don’t think about the need, and we don’t understand the need, or if we’re just stabbing in the dark and trying to guess what that looks like, we’re not going to get it right.
So it’s really imperative to go and talk to people in all sorts of manner of circumstances, with all sorts of different perspectives around that circumstance, to make sure you get a comprehensive design philosophy. And then you actually solve the problem.
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