New Zealand, as one of ten members and countries that form part of the Digital Nations (DN), has world-class digital practices across government which focus on public services that work for citizens.

Nevertheless, there is often a gap between our aspirations for public services and what is actually delivered to the public. Some put this down to the ethos that pervades the public service.

The ethos of public service

Last year, the government introduced the Public Service Act 2020, which replaced the State Sector Act 1988. The name change says a lot. As Chris Hipkins, minister for COVID-19 Response, education, and the Public Service, and Leader of the House, said in July, at the heart of government is a renewed ethos of service to the public, in the interest of fixing “the really big and complex problems New Zealand faces today. Policy and operational silos take you only so far.”

The act enables the public sector to be better organised to respond to specific priorities, allows public servants to move between agencies more easily, and strengthens leadership by empowering chief executives from government agencies to come together to tackle the most pressing cross-portfolio issues.

This new legislation, the biggest change in 30 years to how the government agencies operate, is very welcome. As we see it, it will address three key issues that are currently holding back our public sector.

1. Too much duplication of effort

Too often, agencies are designing, investing, and building separately to solve the same fundamental problems. Despite efforts to encourage cross-agency collaboration and streamline procurement processes, we continue to see bespoke services designed and implemented on a per-agency basis.

This approach may allow an individual agency to move faster in the pursuit of its goals. But, ultimately, the approach slows progress across government.

In its worst manifestation, this duplication of effort, services, and technology platforms can waste taxpayer dollars and prevent government services from being delivered to the right people in a timely fashion.

Standardising platforms of commonly-available services enable organisations to refocus the full force of their resources at the problems they are trying to solve, often with profoundly efficient, innovative, and disruptive consequences.

There are efforts now underway, such as the government’s web platform which shares data across the social sector, that aim to reduce this duplication. But, we need to go much further to truly put citizens first.

2. No common view across government

There is no common view that connects citizens’ lives across the face of government.

We can all relate to this to some degree. When engaging with government agencies, we are repeatedly asked for the same set of personal information. This can lead to delays, frustration, and poor outcomes for everyone involved.

Services like the government's RealMe, which allows citizens to log into numerous government websites and verify their identity to access a host of services, are gradually improving the situation. But there is no cohesive overall government strategy driving the approach towards delivering a seamless experience for citizens interacting with the public sector that serves them.

Unfortunately, citizens also have no real insight into the service provided by public sector agencies. The measures employed don’t prioritise the customer/citizen experience – a state of affairs that will need to change in the new service-driven environment.

We need to understand that the modern customer really is a 'market of one', where personalisation is the norm. Citizens crave a government that really knows them.

3. Trust (and the lack of it)

It’s fair to say that the relationship between citizen and government is skewed towards a requirement to comply.

All the power is currently vested in the Public Service, a risk-averse body which has a tendency to assume the worst and manage by the exception or ‘edge case’ (an unexpected situation). As a result, citizens have come to distrust the government. Too many people are reluctant to seek the help they need and deserve.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have seen during parts of the COVID-19 pandemic the remarkable things the government can achieve when it places trust in its citizens and businesses and makes it easier for them to comply.

Datacom believes a shift in mindset is the first step required to address the issue of trust and a move from a 'compliance to care' approach will begin to improve the relationship dynamic.

Imagine a situation where engaging with the Public Service leads to an initial response of “In your moment of need, we are here to help”, rather than “We can’t help you until we trust that you are deserving of our assistance.”

We can greatly reduce the friction in compliance systems in the public sector to better engage citizens in a trusting two-way relationship.

Hamish is a digital transformation consultant. He helps organisations navigate the complexity of their digital journey.

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