US president Ronald Regan famously described the phrase 'I’m from the government and I’m here to help' as the “nine most terrifying words in the English language”, such was his exasperation with sprawling government bureaucracy in the 1980s.

We can relate to those sentiments whenever we have to talk to multiple government agencies to get approval for an entitlement or fill out a long-winded report to prove we are complying with government or council regulations.

There’s a natural inclination towards a compliance mindset in the public sector, where agencies are dealing with tight resources and accountability to the public is prized above everything else.

In that sense, New Zealand’s wage subsidy scheme launched in 2020 in response to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic — it was a revelation. Within three months of the country plunging into Alert Level 4 lockdown, the government had paid out around NZ$13 billion in wage subsidies to over one million New Zealand workers.

For many employers and sole traders, to apply for the wage subsidy, all that was involved was filling out a short online form. Many had the much-needed funds transferred into their bank account within days, and a text message confirmed the transaction.

Cutting red tape

Facing mass redundancies and the economy grinding to a halt, New Zealand's government chose to put care for its citizens before compliance, providing assistance to those who needed it with the minimum amount of delay or 'red tape'.

Many employers have since paid the wage subsidies back as business returned to normal quicker than they expected. There will certainly have been some non-compliance with the scheme, but the government needed to move fast. It calculated correctly that the majority of people would do the right thing if it was easy for them to do so.

That’s the journey we need to go on in the public sector in general. We need to move from a mentality of compliance to one of care. Too many government processes are still complex, lengthy, and confusing, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction with public services.

The evidence suggests that when we make it easy to comply with government regulations and requirements, people are more likely to stick to the rules. That can have a tangible impact in the form of lower costs for businesses, more innovative public services, and more citizens receiving the help they need.

Who is best placed to help?

Aspects of government compliance have improved in recent years, removing the hoops citizens and businesses need to jump through to access services. But government leaders need to move away from the compliance-first mentality that often sees the public sector assuming direct responsibility for delivering services that the private sector, community groups, iwi (tribe), or non-government organisations (NGOs) may be better placed to provide.

Whether it's deciding how to best protect our vulnerable tamariki (children), deliver preventative healthcare services, or protect our endangered bird species, the quest should always be to put the resources in the hands of those who best understand the problem and can make the biggest difference.

When we move from compliance to care, we prioritise the needs of the people we are tasked with serving. With the right governance, reporting, and light-touch compliance in place, we can do the greatest good possible.

Moving from compliance to care — what we can do now

  • Audit compliance systems to see how they can be streamlined to reduce delays due to compliance requirements for citizens and businesses
  • Technology partners, like Datacom, should strive to understand the needs of public sector agencies, particularly the compliance pain points that hamper effective service delivery
  • Reduce the compliance burden on citizens and businesses to a bare minimum to improve voluntary compliance and focus efforts on the deliberately non-compliant.

With more streamlined compliance, consider who is best placed to deliver the service. NGOs, community groups, or the private sector may better understand the needs of citizens and have the capability to serve them effectively.

As Datacom’s associate director for customer delivery in Wellington, Shannon has worked with major government agencies including the Department of Internal Affairs and the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), assisting with large, long-running digital transformation projects.

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