Why NZ and UK are leading the public sector digital revolution…

At the Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit in London in November 2013, New Zealand became the 61st member of a rapidly expanding global movement.

The OGP is all about making governments more transparent, accountable and responsive to citizens.

International co-operation and the exchange of ideas are essential to embedding openness and transparency across the world. In different ways Britain and New Zealand are already world leaders in transparency. They have a great deal to learn from one another. And we are already partners in the digital revolution that is helping to make open government an everyday reality for citizens.

There is a huge role for technology in opening up government. The way people consume information and buy goods and services is shifting decisively online – digital is not just another channel, it is the medium of choice for this generation. When everyone can shop online in the middle of the night or check their bank balance from a mobile phone, citizens rightly expect the state to provide services that are as accessible.

Both our countries have taken significant steps towards a new digital world. After the election in May 2010, the UK established the Government Digital Service (GDS) to drive a new “digital-by-default” agenda through Whitehall.

In 2013, the New Zealand government launched a new ICT strategy and action plan focused on using technology to deliver better services. Whether in Britain or New Zealand, the cornerstone of digital transformation is a user-friendly domain for government information.

Until our governments embarked on a new digital push, neither country had a digital portal which met the acid test of really meeting users’ needs. Directgov in the UK was an entry point into a confusing maze of additional sites.

It was hard to navigate, duplicated information and had confusing design, presentation and language. User research in New Zealand showed that the newzealand.govt.nz portal could also do a much better job of meeting the needs of users.

Our new approach is to put the user and his or her needs front and centre. GOV.UK, which went live in October 2012, exemplifies this approach to providing services. It’s outward-looking and based on real user needs, not internal government processes and traditions. Unlike most previous public sector IT projects it was developed iteratively, starting small and developed through continuous testing and lesson-learning.

One year on and GOV.UK is now home to all 24 ministerial departments in Britain. User visits are around double the level of those to the Directgov and Business Link websites it replaced. But there’s no room for complacency. GOV.UK must continue to evolve to meet the demands of users and that’s just what it’s designed to do.

New Zealand’s project to replace their portal is called Govt.nz. The site is now in beta stage, for public testing with real users at beta.govt.nz. As was the case with the groundbreaking GOV.UK, Govt.nz is being built through an iterated, user-tested design.

GOV.UK was built for sharing. Most of its code is open source so other countries can use it, rather than having to develop their own. The New Zealand team adapted GOV.UK’s basic design elements, saving time, money and resources.

At the same time, ideas and information are flowing back to the UK. Research in New Zealand corroborated similar studies in the UK which highlighted the need to simplify website design. The Govt.nz team routinely shares the results of its research with its counterparts in the UK, so they can learn from it as well. We know that there’s greater scope for co-operation as independent research and user testing often throws up the same challenges. We look forward to working together ever more closely.

After testing and feedback from the beta site, New Zealand expects the new Govt.nz site to go live in 2014, and by 2017 wants all new government services to be digital-by-default. In the UK, a first wave of 25 “exemplar” services are being moved online. All large new or redesigned digital transactional services going live after April next year will have to be digital-by-default.

A digital revolution has already rocked the world and changed the way we live. But the full promise of the new world has yet to be exploited by countries. Working together we can reshape our public services, using our experience and resources to accelerate digital government across the world.

By Francis Maude – UK minister for the Cabinet Office and Chris Tremain – New Zealand’s minister of internal affairs.

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