Aotearoa looks very different from 30,000 feet up. Gazing down through the window on a recent flight gave me a new perspective on our beautiful country.

From that vantage point, you can’t see the colour of a person’s skin or determine their social or economic status. There are no visible boundaries separating parts of the country; no rural-urban divide.

The sense you get is one of clarity. You appreciate that, as Kiwis gifted with a fertile and productive country, we share a common set of opportunities and challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its myriad of health, social, and economic ramifications, has brought the significance of these opportunities and challenges to light. It has, likewise, required our government agencies to look at the big picture when it comes to servicing the interconnected needs of citizens and businesses. 

The pandemic required our public sector to mobilise in a way never seen before in our history. Contact tracing and virus testing systems were rolled out in the space of a week. Thousands of government workers switched to remote working virtually overnight to continue to serve citizens from their homes. Billions of dollars in wage subsidies and economic support were distributed in time to assist struggling businesses and furloughed workers.

Transformation at speed

Business transformation projects that traditionally would have taken years to complete were finished in a matter of weeks. We learnt to move at speed with confidence and to trust people to do the right thing for the good of everyone. As a result, we dealt with the pandemic in a manner that became the envy of nations.

Now, everyone is asking why this clarity and sense of purpose can’t become business as usual when it comes to the government's relationship with the public.

Will we continue to move swiftly to address the needs of our people and to unite and collaborate across public agencies in doing so? Or will we slip back into old habits, favouring process over outcome, working in silos, and fixating on minimising risk?

It is no secret that our public sector is beset with structural issues. That’s what the ongoing public sector reforms are aimed at trying to fix. As consulting firm PwC reflected in a submission on reform of the State Sector Act, our public sector agencies are, when compared to other jurisdictions, characterised by a “high level of fragmentation and duplication”.

The article continues to state, “We see these barriers [structural and practical to collaboration] most clearly when there are high levels of complexity to overcome, significant issues to solve, or where people with a high level of needs must navigate across multiple agencies to get needed services."

The result of that reform is a new piece of legislation – the Public Service Act 2020. As the name implies, the focus is on public service, putting the citizen first. Therefore, it empowers government agencies design services to best suit the need of citizens to collaborate and innovate to do so. It’s the biggest shake-up of the public sector’s remit in over 30 years.

Those in the public sector have proven before, such as during the responses to the Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes, they can break down the silos in government to work swiftly and effectively. How do we maintain that sense of collaboration and cooperation in the wake of the current crisis?

With the pandemic requiring many citizens to interact with government agencies to a greater extent than ever before, this is a question requiring an urgent answer.

The citizen at the centre

How do we put the citizen at the centre of our thinking and give them a uniform experience no matter how many agencies they need to deal with? How do we move away from a focus on process and compliance to build a more trusting relationship between citizens and the agencies that serve them? What is required to develop the leadership that will allow us to break down those silos to allow the full resources of the government to be thrown at the biggest problems we face.

One thing you can’t appreciate from 30,000 feet up is just how complex some of those problems are. New Zealand has high levels of social inequity, young people dying by suicide, and child abuse compared to other developed countries. A crippling shortage of housing and sky-high real estate prices have put homeownership beyond the grasp of many. Our labour productivity continues to lag behind countries we compete with for export dollars.

These are complex problems that require more effective multi-stakeholder responses. With up to NZ$50 billion committed to COVID-19 recovery initiatives and shovel-ready projects, and a new government in place with a strong mandate to act, we now have a prime opportunity to overcome what has previously held us back.

The way forward

Join me and other key Datacom experts in our latest public sector blog series where we'll explore what a truly connected and trusted public service could look like. We will draw on our expertise working with public sector agencies across Australasia to suggest ways in which we can more effectively collaborate to better serve citizens. We will highlight the progress that has already been made in using technology to transform government services.

To paraphrase one senior government minister, who said recently when reflecting on the remarkable public sector response to the pandemic, 'We've seen the future. Let's stay there.'

As a technology partner to many government agencies, Datacom is ready to play its part in keeping New Zealand there.

Justin is Datacom's managing director, technology services, New Zealand. He has over 20 years’ experience in driving successful business and digital transformation across sectors spanning public service, retail, manufacturing, automotive, utilities, and more.

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