NZ E-government makes its invisible mark

New Zealand e-government has arrived at the first of its self-imposed milestones, and reckons it's not doing at all badly. There are still, however, weaknesses in seamless collaboration among agencies, and a disappointingly low number of Internet users are using it to access government information and services.

The government's e-government strategy promised that by 2004 "the Internet will be the dominant means of enabling ready access to government".

In a report published last week, the State Services Commission surveys the general e-government landscape and separately 41 central government agencies. Each agency's metadata and Web site quality are assessed and rated on alignment with "e-government goals".

The three major goals are identified as "convenience and satisfaction" for the user, "integration (with other agencies) and efficiency" and "participation" -- the degree to which citizens can give input and feedback to the agency online.

Inland Revenue, Statistics New Zealand and Archives New Zealand score as overall "top performers", while several websites are chosen as "best practice examples", including such niche areas as StudyLink, Reduce Rubbish and dog safety. Sites are scored on information and service delivery, usability, accessibility and "required" content according to the government's Web guidelines.

Overall "we've achieved our 2004 goal", says e-government unit head Laurence Millar, giving most of the credit for leadership to his predecessor Brendan Boyle. "If you want government information, it's there -- even though you may have some difficulty finding it." Some of the agencies' websites have weak search engines and a few have no search facilities at all. Individual facilities are needed for more detailed search within a particular agency, despite the overarching government portal, he says.

On some sites, too, "navigation can be counter-intuitive." E-government has achieved some of the turnaround he said was critical when he came on board, from "agency-centric" to "citizen-centric" where the focus is on the user's needs in a particular situation, no matter which agency provides them.

"We would like to see more joined-up services" where agencies freely pass information among themselves and the boundaries become invisible to the citizen), says Millar.

Agencies will be encouraged to look at their own profile in the report and compare themselves with the best practitioners in e-government.

However, surveys of users show awareness of services is still inadequate. One asked users what services they would most like to see provided online. A good many of the answers named services that were already there, but obviously not well known, Millar says.

As one way of filling that gap, a six-week program will be run in schools and libraries in a selected location early next year on the theme "Did you know you could do this?" The increased awareness of the online services demonstrated in comparison with the rest of the country and the retention of that awareness over time will be measured.

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