Over the last few years, New Zealand has seen quality leadership and innovation in the public sector lead to much better experiences for its citizens.

Take Inland Revenue Department’s (IRD) business transformation programme. This multi-year project has rebuilt IRD's technology from the ground up with little to no disruption to taxpayers. Part of the overhaul introduced automatic tax assessments which makes life easier for New Zealand's tax payers.

Instead of having to apply for a refund if you think you’ve paid too much tax during the year, IRD will refund the money straight into your bank account based on an automatic assessment. In 2019, IRD paid out nearly $600 million in refunds to 1.3 million Kiwis — up nearly one third on the previous year. It’s a fairer system that reduces paperwork for taxpayers.

In 2018, the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) was the first in the country to employ 'face liveness detection', which it uses for faster sign up to RealMe — the single verified-identity system for government and private services.

Through the RealMe Now mobile app, the user can take a selfie and the app will compare the image to their passport photo, which is held securely by the DIA. Previously, applying for a RealMe verified identity involved a visit to a PostShop. Now it can be done from the couch.

Our ability to innovate — what counts?

New Zealand's public sector is thinking deeply about how it can better deliver services for citizens. In 2018, when the World Bank looked at the crucial ways to improve public sector performance, it settled on five factors: political leadership, institutional capacity building, incentives, transparency, and technology.

We excel in some of those areas and we're weak in others. I’d argue that to improve our government agencies’ performance across the board, we first have to grapple with our fear of failure.

The ghosts of failed technology projects continue to haunt our government departments. Difficulties that lead to negative press for agencies, and political fallout for the ministers responsible, has led to risk-averse behaviour, which makes it harder to succeed.

The most successful and innovative companies in the world spend a lot of time experimenting and taking risks in a controlled manner. The government needs to adopt the same mindset. We need to help the public understand that a certain amount of risk is required to achieve truly transformative results.

With strong political leadership, good capacity in government to manage change, incentives to encourage success, transparency, and innovation in the use of technology, the risk of failure is minimised.

Looking outward for inspiration

We share the same problems as governments on a global scale, so we needn’t seek out solutions in isolation.

In Rwanda, the government has combined imihigo — the traditional ‘vow to deliver’ with the modern concept of performance contracts. It introduced non-monetary incentives to get mayors across the country to set development targets and monitor progress towards achieving them. The programme was so successful it has now been applied to government ministries.

In the 2000s, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, which focused on improving the delivery of public services. The delivery unit model has since been employed in Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, and several Latin American countries and US states.

As the World Bank points out in its 2018 Global Report: Public Sector Performance, “Governments with well-performing public sectors are capable of translating good policies into development outcomes.” We need to unlock that potential for Aotearoa by learning from the best, working on those five factors that are key to success, and being willing to take a few more managed risks along the way.


Darren has 20 years' experience working with public sector partners to explore and use technology to enable better services and experiences for all New Zealanders.

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