Australia lags behind in ‘e-government' services

Customer service is now a top priority in the public sector as government managers prepare for a massive increase in online demand from IT-savvy communities. However, Australia is trailing Britain and Canada in implementing e-government services for its citizens, says a Deloitte Consulting study.

The report, At the Dawn of e-Government: The Citizen as Customer, says 12 per cent of Australians have access to government services via the Internet.

While this figure is expected to increase almost twofold to about 34 per cent by 2002, Britain and Canada expect 40 per cent of their citizens to be using online services.

The study, which surveyed 250 state-level government departments in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the US, also illustrated the benefits of ‘customer centric' e-government.

The Deloitte report said agencies that took a customer-centric approach were likely to achieve almost 50 per cent more success in providing easier customer access, increased service volume, getting better data on operations, reducing employee complaints, reducing employees' time spent on noncustomer activities and improving their image.

"Traditionally, legislation has been the catalyst for change in the public sector, but this has been turned on its head with the community demanding a much higher level of customer service across multiple channels," said Mike Lisle-Williams, from Deloitte Consulting's public sector group.

"The challenge for government entities is to ensure they optimise service levels for customers - this will incorporate an intricate knowledge of what the customer wants as well as the ongoing management of the multichannel approach."

Lisle-Williams said the other countries were much more advanced in adopting an e-focus - "treating the citizen as customer" and delivering actual services rather than just information.

People who have found it easier, quicker and cheaper to buy goods, financial services and holidays on the Internet are driving the change, he said. And they expect to be able to do the same with services provided by the government.

The switch to greater use of new technology reflects a public desire to be seen as customers of government services rather than citizens. Their expectations have been heightened as a result of experiences with private sector organisations such as online financial services, retailers and travel agents.

"E-government is not just another way of doing things.

It is a transformation on a scale that will fundamentally alter the way public services are delivered and managed."

"For Australian government entities to be successful they will need to not only address the technology that a truly customer-centric organisation espouses but other fundamental issues, such as resigning processes and leading cultural change consistent with new ways of working." Lisle-Williams said 51 per cent of Australian government respondents in Australia indicated they had either implemented or were implementing self-service channels such as call centres or kiosks as well as Internet sites.

One channel example among government entities was the move to transform their Web sites from ‘encyclopedias' to transaction processors, led by taxation and motor vehicle departments.

"Such customer centric solutions will only be successful if governments integrate their customer focus throughout the organisation," Lisle-Williams said.

"This needs to include an enterprise-wide understanding of the various channels citizens will use to conduct their transactions. wGovt and business make uneasy bedfellowsTaking politics out of government is never easy, just ask Sun Microsystems' managing director, Russell Bate. A casual remark by the Sun MD after a meeting with Tasmania's Department of State Development soon became fodder for the Liberal opposition which used it in Parliament to criticise the government's IT strategy.

Bidding for IT investment dollars in the state the Tasmanian Premier, Jim Bacon, met with Bate to trumpet its policy of IT payroll tax exemptions. At a lunch that followed, Bate expressed surprise at not being approached by the government earlier as the exemptions had already been in force for one year.

Inevitably, the spat, including remarks from both sides of the house, was splashed across the pages of the local media.

The opposition jumped on the comment with IT spokesman Matt Smith claiming the government's investment strategy had "fallen on its face". The issue was raised during question time in the Legislative Assembly igniting rowdy debate about the government's ability to promote its incentives and attract much-needed investment dollars.

Taken aback by the political furore that arose, Bate wrote to the premier expressing "extreme disappointment" at being selectively quoted by the opposition and pointed out it was a small criticism in the context of his overall support for the policy itself. He also foreshadowed Sun's intention to undertake further investment in the state soon. w - Sandra Van Dijk

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