Presenting a public face

I got some wine and cheese, invited the information people from lots of government departments, sat the projector on a desk, and showed them the Web server, explaining this was now accessible from anywhere in the world. I said ‘I want some money and your information.’ I asserted that this was the official government Web server and nobody questioned me, although Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did give me a hard time because they hadn’t vetted it first. Colin Jackson, policy analyst in Communications Minister Maurice Williamson’s IT Policy group.

After becoming perhaps the first country in the world to launch an ‘official’ government Web server with useful public information, various agencies, and departments veered off on their own design adventure. It took half a decade to get the ensuing navigational nightmare back on course for a cohesive all-of-government Web presence.

Information technology steered an equally unsteady course with government departments gambling hundreds of millions of dollars over three decades on so-called leading-edge ‘for tomorrow today’ projects, which continued to swallow up cash as technology outpaced narrow proprietary thinking. Eventually there was a move back to some centralised control of core technologies, standards for accessibility and guidelines for how departments would inter-operate.

When National MP Maurice Williamson entered parliament in 1987 there was no such thing as a PC and no one was interested in investing in one. There was a typewriter for each secretary and that was as far as it went. He provided his own PC. On termination of his contract with Air New Zealand, the year before he was elected to the Pakuranga electorate, Williamson struck a deal for 12 months of cheap airfares. He flew to Hong Kong and purchased a ‘cheap knock-off’ IBM PC for $5200. For 1986 it was actually a rather highly configured 286 machine with a 20Mb hard drive. The retail price in New Zealand would have been closer to $12,000. So he sat proudly at his parliamentary desk bashing away at the keyboard and people came from near and far to see this oddity. He was writing a thank you letter in ‘MultiMate’ word processing software when Prime Minister Rob Muldoon strolled past the door. “He stopped, backed up, looked at me and said, ‘Ah, so how’s the mad scientist doing tonight then, eh?’ I thought, ‘This is unbelievable! I’m not programming a space rocket for the moon; I’m trying to write a bloody letter!’”

Williamson had written a Dbase 1 database program for his mailing list so he could send letters efficiently. He was in for a reality check when he tried to find a way to output its contents: thank you letters to people who’d helped during the election. He asked administrative staff how to mail merge the names and addresses to 300–400 people. No one had any idea what mail merge meant. In the end he used direct data exchange (DDE) links, which required him to write code, associate the link with the data record and then move to the next record. “It was just impossible. I was a really good programmer and I found it difficult.”

Even when Microsoft Word came out it took some time for the mail merge function to be added. “I actually remember sitting down with Bill Gates in 1993, when we had dinner here with Bolger, and I said to him, ‘Well, I think your word processor is hopeless because it doesn’t have proper mail merging.’ He said, ‘You spec out the facilities you’d want in a mail merge and we’ll see if we can incorporate it in future generations.’” Williamson insists the specifications he ultimately wrote for Microsoft were key to that functionality being added to future versions of Word. “Microsoft acknowledged that to me at the time.”

Williamson knew the universities had been messing around with Internetlike connections since the early 1980s but to him it didn’t appear to have amounted to anything. He didn’t realise what they were up to until he became associate minister of research, science, and technology in 1990, which forced him to work with the universities on information technology. “I thought, ‘This is great for scientists but it will never be of major interest to your average punter.’” In fact he said the first material he saw coming off the Internet backbone, once Waikato had connected into the United States through the NASA link, wasn’t even on a screen. He recalled his experience at Auckland University: “They were bringing stuff down and it was coming out on the line flow printer. It wasn’t the Internet like we know it, with a mouse and a lovely big LCD screen with beautiful colours. They just said, ‘We’re on.’ I said, ‘Are you?’ And they said, ‘Yes, look at the little red light flashing.’ So they ordered up something, ‘a research paper they were looking for’ and it was printed out on this dot-matrix printer where you tear along the perforations and it was appallingly difficult to read. They didn’t have the proper screens in some cases and it just came through like a teletype machine.”

Passion primes portfolio

In 1990, under Jim Bolger’s new National Government, Williamson became the country’s first information and communications technology minister. It wasn’t a designation he was appointed to; rather one he lobbied for. He recalled telling Bolger that the ICT portfolio would be bigger than any other portfolio in terms of its importance to the nation in 20 years’ tie. While Bolger rubbished the idea, he wasn’t closed to the possibility. “I said, ‘We should try to give the portfolio some credibility and status now.’ It wasn’t like I was asking for a budget, because Bill Birch had said, ‘There’s no money and a new ministry is the last thing we need.’” Williamson was simply volunteering to be ‘a sort of a flag-waver and a banner carrier’ for the concept.

His passion for taking advantage of technology and making sure everyone knew about his exploits and breakthroughs included assisting Finance Minister Ruth Richardson when she put together the presentation for her ‘mother of all budgets’ in 1991. He managed to get a copy of PowerPoint 1.0 and made a slideshow on the computer so she could present her major reforms with graphs of expenditure and an outline of what she was planning. There were no data projectors in those days so he went to a company in Auckland to convert the PowerPoint images into 35mm slides, which she could show on the wall from her rotary carousel projector.

Williamson remembers getting a call from Microsoft country manager, Chris Kelliher, who alerted him to the latest development from Hewlett-Packard. It was a portable computer that looked a bit like a sewing machine, with sides that dropped down and included a keyboard and screen. At least it was small enough to move from place to place. “We just sat there and marvelled and one of the guys actually said, ‘This is the Holy Grail. We’ve finally found it.’ Then I said, ‘The trouble is the screen is too small because only people who gathered around close enough could see it.’ The first projector I saw cost $25,000. I got to borrow it but the picture was so dull that if anyone dared lift the blinds you couldn’t see the picture on the wall and that was in the early 90s.”

His earliest Internet access was a toll call into a server in Australia that had some pertinent data on Australian politics. After getting the hang of what was possible he began to gather up the best material he could to make presentations showing the potential of the Internet. “Most of the pages, like an art exhibition from the Louvre, were actually on the CD-Rom in the drive. I never told anybody at first because you couldn’t get anything like this in a reasonable fashion on the Internet but I knew it was coming. I started telling people this was going to be the new highway for the future. Railways were the highways of the 19th century, roads were the highways of the 20th and then the 21st century was the superhighway.”

Williamson pushed for separate policy on information technology and wanted a group of advisors to keep him informed on Internet and IT-related issues. The Ministry of Commerce telecommunications group was entrenched with interconnection issues as the big battle raged on with Telecom and Clear. Reg Hammond, a specialist computer auditor recruited by the SSC from the electricity industry in the United Kingdom, and policy advisor Colin Jackson, formed the core Ministry of Commerce IT policy unit in 1993, providing research and advice for Williamson.

Jackson had been working as an IT consultant with the National Bank in Wellington, advising them on the transition from old green-screen terminals to a PC culture when he responded to an advertisement for a position with the IT Policy Unit. He specialised in technical policy issues. “While the job description didn’t mention the Internet I knew it was going to be huge; the Web was just beginning to make an impression. I had Internet email working and the Mosaic Web browser was out so you could surf to maybe 100 sites around the world.”

Hammond’s first experience of the Internet had been through a DEC computer system, which enabled limited communications with other government DEC machines over X400 in the late 1980s. When Wellington City started offering free Internet he got involved, albeit mainly downloading Duke Nukem and other games onto a fistful of floppies for his kids to play at home. Then he experienced the Web at a Uniforum conference in Rotorua where Roger Hicks, Jim Higgins, John Hine, and others were demonstrating in the exhibition area. Most of the attendees, who were supposed to be in the conference room listening to the next address, were marvelling at the new Mosaic Web browser and the World Wide Web.

“We had been involved in email and Usenet but for me the real tipping point was the Web. It made everyone see the future capabilities. As soon as I got back to my office I insisted the Ministry of Commerce have a web site within a week. I said to Colin Jackson, ‘Just get it done.’” In effect that gave Jackson the official go-ahead for what he’d been playing around with anyway. “He was a typical techo and I gave him open slather to do what he wanted. He would occasionally comment and say, ‘Oh, I’ve just got the domain name. Is that okay?’ He had a personal love of it all. Both he and I were convinced the Internet was going to transform the telecommunications environment. The people working in telecommunications policy at the time weren’t as interested. They still saw everything focused around voice networks.”

Before Williamson’s IT policy group was formed, computing had come under the SSC, largely centred around the GCS, which looked after the public service data centres. Hammond and Jackson were eager to ensure the government was ready for the next wave.

MP gets stoned

The Ministry of Commerce policy people saw potential for significant economic benefit for the country and were asking what the government’s role was. “We wanted people to take advantage, innovate, look for efficiencies and become more productive. While some in government liked to poke fun at Maurice Williamson, they were very open to him when he talked about productivity and efficiency, and the fact we could save billions in the large expenditure agencies of government, such as education and health, if we used technology. He told them it was good for government, the economy and the individual. He used to get his leg pulled but he was a real evangelist,” said Hammond.

Williamson was convinced the Internet was going to have a big impact and kept raising the issue with Telecom but they said there were no ISPs set up to bring it here, although they were planning one soon. “The more I presented this stuff, the more I got excited about things that probably weren’t even within the domain of possibility in those days. I kept talking about how you would be able to do all of your government transactions and your banking; and if you wanted to move money you would just go on-line. In those days no one had given much concern to security. I’d never thought about it much until this virus appeared on my computer, telling me it was stoned. That was the only virus I ever got. It came off someone’s floppy disk, and it kept coming up. It really pissed me off because I thought ‘That’s wrecked my computer forever.’ Then it would come right and work well for the rest of the session. It wasn’t one of those things that ripped your disk to pieces and tore your data out” Colin Jackson became a founding member of the ISOCNZ, formed to ensure the Internet in New Zealand remained open and ‘uncapturable,’ a word he claimed to have invented. “I used to be one of those people who got hung up about language but then I realised the relevance is to communicate what you are saying and thinking rather than a power relationship with the listener, I got less worried about inventing words on the fly as long as you make your point clear.”

One of his first jobs was to give an opinion on whether the government should maintain its commitment to the OSI model. “The government had been determined to show ‘leadership’ in requiring all departments to install this OSI stuff; the New Zealand version was called GOSIP (government open systems interconnect profile). It was mainly designed by bureaucrats in committees that were driven by politics, which is not the way to design a piece of engineering so it’s not surprising it didn’t work.” Besides, a growing number of government departments were connecting to Internet email as the preferred means of communication and moving away from the old X400 services based on OSI protocols. “I did my research and quickly came to a view that GOSIP was already dead and starting to smell but it would be a while before it started to disintegrate. I made the slightly radical suggestion that the government should use IP (Internet protocol) for everything it did.”

Jackson managed to get hold of the dot.govt domain name, which had already been established for email use, and got a server running using The Ministry of Commerce wasn’t averse to his experimentation but unwilling to make any investment. “I didn’t like my chances of going to the IT department and asking for funding to put this strange thing called a Web server in. They wouldn’t have bought that.” So he went to Victoria University and sought assistance from IT department head Frank March and graduate student Nathan Torkington, who’d been responsible for introducing Web technology there and had probably built the first New Zealand web site.

Torkington claimed it was he who came up with the idea of calling the government site simply “Normally there has to be a department name between the www and the dot.govt and that was somewhat controversial. It’s not the way they did it elsewhere but it seemed obvious, useful, overarching and something that we should do.”

Pioneering web content

Jackson began to look for suitable content to put on-line. He was unable to locate any official material about the MMP (mixed member proportional) electoral system so wrote his own description. This, along with a map of the electoral regions, became the first live content. Then he described the constitution ‘as much as was possible’ and acquired a map of the country, which he turned into a .gif graphic file.

“I rang Sir Hugh Kauwharu and asked him if I could put up his modern translation of the Treaty of Waitangi. He gave his blessing as long as I included all his scholarly footnotes. I rang the governor general’s house and asked for all the information on him along with various documents from the Department of Commerce. I had to trace owners of various information and convince them to let me put it on-line. Most of them had never heard of the Internet so the task often proved quite difficult.”

Having created a relatively passable, content-rich site, Jackson then dug into his boss Reg Hammond’s entertainment budget and acquired a data projector the size of a suitcase for around $17,000. “I got some wine and cheese, invited the information people from lots of government departments, sat the projector on a desk, and showed them the Web server, explaining this was now accessible from anywhere in the world. I said, ‘I want some money and your information.’ I asserted that this was the official government Web server and nobody questioned me, although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did give me a hard time because they hadn’t vetted it first.”

Jackson is convinced his efforts meant New Zealand was one of the first nations to get an official government Web server up and running, although he admitted the United States did have some material on-line before went live. His team also ran the first election night Web server with real-time results that didn’t actual melt down. “I achieved that by essentially introducing a few people to each other and stood around on the sidelines cheering them on. We were very good at that. We were well ahead of many parts of the world.”

He insists if he’d gone through official channels trying to get approval for these projects he would have spent a lot of time writing papers for Cabinet and trying to get his proposal past certain individuals. “I wouldn’t have liked my chances.” Following the Web launch cocktail party there was a growing enthusiasm from a number of government departments and piles of information starting arriving on his desk, along with a few cheques for $1000. Jackson hired a graduate student at Victoria University to cut the HTML code at Student Job Search rates, while he co-ordinated with various departments on a Web strategy, all the while trying to stay focused on his ‘real job’ – helping to create IT policy for the whole of government.

Some departments were soon developing their own content, planning their own Web presence and even running their own web sites on the Ministry of Commerce server, all with unique approaches. Jackson and his team developed a search engine and directory across the entire government space to ensure there was at least some semblance of order. One of the first stand-alone sites was that of Treasury, developed by American John Lozowsky[1] ‘a sandal-wearing hippie-type who wore shorts and T-shirt for most of the year. He was one of the earliest government people on the Web,’ and developed the first health site. The National Library, the Department of Education and Parliament itself were also early adopters.

Concurrent to Jackson’s efforts the Department of Internal Affairs purchased its own Web server, which it ran from its own offices. It had managed to source funding and was building an on-line version of the government Blue Pages, which were no longer being published in the hard copy Telecom phone books. “They were far better resourced than we were so the State Services Commission (SSC) began negotiating to bring the two sites together.” It brokered a deal to take over the domain and merged the sites.

Web pioneer Nathan Torkington found himself working in Colorado in 1995 and thought he’d do the patriotic thing. “In America anything the government does is public domain, including the laws of the land. There’s no perceived value in keeping it hidden away or charging the public for access.” In New Zealand, however, it was a different story as Torkington found when he decided to do a little public good Web development. He began gathering the laws of the nation to make them more accessible to the public and the world. “It really was in a messed-up state. It was Crown copyright and the GPO tried to exploit that. They were apparently the only ones who had the right to put the laws on-line and use them in an on-line form.”

He ‘crawled’ every government page and began downloading relevant information. “Boy, I got into some serious shit when I spidered those guys. I got this angry phone call: ‘And what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’ It seemed like a pretty ordinary event to me but they were quite disgruntled that I had been downloading all the pages. Ironically of course the Copyright Act would have been one of the ones that I downloaded,” recalled Torkington. The problem was that Government Print had sold the rights and all New Zealand legislation was locked up in a private company web site. “It had pretty crappy access and so I was in a sense liberating it from them. I was going to put them into a much better searchable Web but the grumpy call from Wellington turned that off.”

Learning to turn it on

IT Minister Maurice Williamson was still on the campaign trail with, the latest technology in hand including PowerPoint presentations, ready to roll for engagements to speak to Rotary clubs and any group that would listen. However back in Parliament the struggle continued. “In 1996 we got these old Ratheon green screens delivered to each minister’s desktop as part of an internal network because they wanted to make us look like we were really hip and cool. There was nothing really on them you could use, although there was an ability to send electronic messages to each other around the system. I sent one out to all ministers, which proved to be bloody hard to do because there was no address book with an ‘all ministers’ category in it. I managed to get them all together and sent a message: ‘If you get this, please reply to me.’ The only one that replied was Jenny Shipley and that was about three weeks later when she’d logged on to see what this thing was like. I remember asking Doug Graham one day, ‘Did you get my message on that new screen?’ He said, ‘Oh! I don’t even know how to turn it on.’”

There weren’t many exemplary e-government examples around the world. Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne hadn’t done much to bring the Internet into their public service. “So Bolger did something I was really grateful for: he not only made me minister of science and technology, minister of transport, minister of IT and communications, but also made me an associate minister of State Services, tasked with dragging each of the chief executives together and ‘blowtorching’ them about bringing technology to their client base. I used to scream and yell at them, ‘If I hear any talk that you guys have not been 100 percent co-operative in trying to get this whole IT revolution sparked through your agencies there’ll be trouble.’ Some were so dog-in-the-manger, even saying ‘we’re not an agency that will ever need to go to computers.’ And I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, but this will apply in your arts and culture or roads or prison services or whatever. This revolution is going to change the way you do every bloody thing from the way you shop to the way you’re educated.’ And I think that we finally broke the back. It was sort of a pioneering time within the public service.”

Meanwhile various government departments continued to do their own thing with no cohesive plan or standards around how their web sites were hosted, built, accessed, or navigated. Everything had evolved according to the whim of each department and it looked that way. There were, however, attempts at harmonising things to make public access more intuitive. The Internal Affairs Department’s Government within Reach (GWR) project was launched in 1995 but took two years to come up with options, and even then the bulk of proposals weren’t acted on, as less than one third of government agencies showed any interest.

New Zealand Government On-line site manager Shane Middlemass said the increasing importance of the Internet wasn’t understood at the time the GWR report was commissioned, and the initial government Web pages and Blue Pages Web directory were launched. It was recommended government information be available 24 hours a day through touch-screen public information kiosks. “GWR was promoting the traditional view of the kiosk, a closed network with proprietary authoring, transaction capabilities, printers and peripherals. It’s fair to say there were sceptics who’d seen examples in other countries that weren’t doing that well.”

After considering the expense of paying for and supporting a multimillion-dollar nationwide network with all the boxes and bandwidth and interactive authoring, the kiosk idea died. In 1997 the government presence was further reviewed with a mandate to help close the gap between ‘information haves and have-nots’ and ensure equal access to all public data. Again some kind of public access terminal was being considered, because at this stage only 20 percent of New Zealanders had Internet access. Middlemass, who was responsible for the main government sites, made the assessment that by 2002 a maximum of 60 percent of the New Zealand population would have access to the Internet so there was an urgent need for action, although the government believed it was still too early to commit to a public network to distribute its information.[2]

Runaway IT projects

Government departments and the computer industry received a wake-up call with the growing focus on out-of-control public service computer projects and the looming threat of Year 2000 non-compliance. The cause of many budget blowouts appeared to be the compound effect of technology that didn’t do what its champions promised, changing requirements, key staff leaving, and bad management. While the departments themselves were being hauled over the coals and came under much closer scrutiny, the computer industry – specifically systems integrators, consultants, and project managers – also came in for their share of the blame. Labour spokesperson Trevor Mallard estimated the real total of cost over-runs might be at least $68 million, including missed deadlines. In his review of government technology projects he found more than 20 were at least 20 percent over budget.

There had been no overview or centralised monitoring group checking where the money was going or whether the benefits were going to be delivered on time and on budget. Early in 1997, then State Services Minister Jenny Shipley called for an immediate stock-take of all public service IT projects. The resulting report severely downplayed any problems, claiming in fact the government had managed to save $3.4 million and only 14 percent of the contracts were over budget. It was only Labour’s persistence that forced the true costs into the open. In fact Trevor Mallard had to use the Official Information Act to pry data about each project from the departments concerned. He found things were far worse than he imagined and believed many of the figures provided to him may have been understated.

He slammed Treasury and State Services’ attempts at assessing the problem and accused the government of mismanagement. Of the 105 projects completed by July 1998, 28 percent were over budget, with total cost over-runs in excess of $37 million. Of the remaining 45 projects still in progress 25 were expected to blow the budget. Mallard estimated total cost of 150 projects begun in the past five years – including wasted productivity and $10 million in abandoned projects – might be as high as $200 million. The fuss resulted in more reporting and accountability of technology projects than ever before. The SSC for example was broadening its scope to include smaller projects and those considered high risk and not previously audited, as well as clusters of activity that together could be considered significant. Inland Revenue, Statistics New Zealand, Social Welfare, the Department of Courts, Agriculture, Internal Affairs, Treasury, Agriculture and Commerce all had systems where cost and time exceeded that planned. However the first major project to have the whistle blown on it was the new police system.

The Integrated National Computerised Information System (INCIS) project for NZ Police was $20 million over budget and over two years behind schedule. Stewart Watson, the third project manager, had the unenviable task of pulling it back on track. INCIS began in 1994 and was meant to have been completed by December 1997 at a cost of $98 million. The budget was now $118 million. Promoted as leading the world into a new era of intelligent crime fighting, INCIS was only two- thirds completed at the end of 1998. Watson, who has been involved in several national technology projects previously, said “scope creep” was the major cause of the delays. It was important all parties agreed on the details of large projects in advance. “Successful projects don’t happen by chance.” This wasn’t Watson’s first troubleshooting role. He picked up on the replacement to the Pathway systems project for ACC after its re-engineering got out of control and scaled it back significantly. He had also been involved with the Social Welfare SWIFFT (Social Welfare for Tomorrow Today) system, one of the largest undertaken in this country. With only two weeks under his belt Watson was ‘staggered’ at the breadth of the INCIS project.

In 1997 Anderson Consulting had been called in to conduct an audit and INCIS was already spinning steadily out of control. It recommended major changes or canning it altogether. The report was kept under wraps for a year and only came out in a highly censored form. It was critical of police management, claiming it took six years of planning before work was begun and there was no overall master plan. Anderson Consulting project director Ramez Katf said the recent focus on government projects should serve as a big awakening to the technology industry which ‘is getting a bad name for itself.’ He said both government and big business needed to better understand the complexity of large change projects. Projects get more complex as people find new things to fix rather than focusing on ‘the big ticket items’ and delivering something. Programme management disciplines were often forgotten. “If you miss a milestone, a red flag should go up otherwise you end up with long-time delays.” Rigorous reporting and monitoring was needed. It was “pretty basic stuff,” he said. “Plan the work and work the plan – ensure everyone knows what’s expected of them.”

Terence Pohlen, principal with Wellington-based consultancy and project management firm Pohlen Robinson, believed large projects were often hampered by a lack of scientific measurement, unskilled management, and expectations that were too high. His firm conducted the original IT audit of government departments on behalf of the SSC in 1997 and said critics often failed to consider what they’re getting for additional investment. “You should ask what is being returned and whether it is good value. Government is no worse or better than any other large projects. Systems are difficult enough to build and manage let alone change, and the speed of change is coming on faster,” said Pohlen. The Year 2000 threat of non-compliant computer systems failing was surely the biggest incentive of all to get it right. If new government computer systems were not completed in time for full testing by mid-1999, it was feared it might result in far more than blown budgets as the hands of the clock ticked over into the new century.[3]

E-Government unit formed

After internal management changes within the Ministry of Commerce, Colin Jackson moved to a more hands-on technical role with the government’s Superannuation Fund and became a member of the secretariat to the Prime Minister’s Y2K Commission. “A lot of old software got thrown out and replaced and that’s always a good thing. There was a huge momentum. It got to the point where it was a bit silly; you could have anything you wanted as long as you said it was for Y2K, which was great for technology types like myself. The downside was we spent a heck of a lot of time at work trying to show everyone that we had completed these huge tick lists and that we would be fully compliant. Along with all the planning you needed to also show that if something did go wrong, such as the power going off, that you were ready for it. Even at the Superannuation Fund we had to ensure all the IT facilities we needed to do our job were protected.”

Jackson joined the State Services Commission’s e-Government Unit in 2000. By this stage all departments were making arbitrary decisions about how to go on-line, what technology to use and how web sites should look. “They all looked completely different. Decentralised government departments had a statutorily high degree of autonomy and SSC had to get Cabinet to enforce any decisions it made. Accessibility for example began to be a major issue.” Jackson helped pull together some government Web guidelines, although these were largely pillaged from the UK government. “By the second revision we were able to force some measure of sameness and accessibility. It was very difficult as some departments felt their autonomy was being infringed and it involved a lot of persuading. There was a sense of don’t tell us what to do.”

However there were serious issues to face. A Deloitte Consulting report released in early 2000 suggested New Zealand was about two years behind Australia, Britain, and Canada in developing an e-commerce focus. The report, ‘At the Dawn of e-Government: The Citizen as Customer,’ said New Zealand lagged in providing government information about services on the Internet, and must adopt a more customer-focused approach. It said there needed to be provision of 24-hour, seven-day a week self-service applications over the Internet including the ability to apply for a driver’s licence, housing permit, or unemployment benefit.

It suggested only 11 percent of New Zealanders could benefit from access to government services on-line at the time, although this was expected to increase to 24 percent over the next two years. That was still way behind Australia and Britain and Canada, which were expecting 34 percent of their citizens would be using on-line services. The Deloitte report found government department technology was hindering progress because it was not designed for an on-line world. The report backed up findings from a Victoria University study carried out over two years by its School of Communications Information Management, which revealed fewer than half the people visiting a government site could find what they were looking for.

The study concluded that government as a central agency needed to take responsibility across all the sites, since there appeared to be no guidelines for information presentation across the 52 main government web sites. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and the Department of Internal Affairs were rated weakest overall. The study recommended the sites be much better integrated with the main NZGO government home page.

At a conference in March 2000, Commerce Minister Paul Swain said democracy depended on e-government, and if governments were going to maintain their legitimacy they needed to be more responsive to the needs of individuals and communities. He said e-government was about addressing the new social and economic imperatives arising from the information age: “It is an issue no less important than democracy itself.” He said the government’s three objectives were to improve the quality of government information and services, enhance the relationship between citizens and the government, and improve the performance of government agencies.

That aligned closely with a government plan to try to close the ‘digital divide,’ which had the Department of Labour determined to improve public access to the Internet. Research by AC Nielsen in the middle of 1999 suggested just over 15 percent of people earning $30,000 or less had access to the Internet, compared with 30 percent of people earning $30,000–$60,000 and nearly 60 percent of those earning more than $80,000. The project to close the gap between the information ‘haves and have-nots’ was passed from the Ministry of Economic Development to the Department of Labour in May. The move was seen as a key part of ensuring the success of the government’s plans to shift all public sector services on-line by 2005.

In its July 2001 report the SSC said there was significant potential for technology to reduce compliance costs for businesses and urged Statistics, ACC, and the Ministry for the Environment to pay more attention to disseminating information and allowing business interaction using the Internet. It said on-line publication and acceptance of submissions would be helpful in the legislative process. Inland Revenue had made some inroads but was urged to extend the use of e-file technology to all forms, returns, and correspondence.

Statistics NZ was working with a number of companies to allow it to supply statistical information directly from their business records via electronic transfer. The report encouraged commercial software houses to create packages that enabled standard accounting processes to create statistical data in a form the department could use. The ACC was urged to make greater use of the Internet and its web site for education, providing a question-and-answer service, filling in ACC claim forms, and allowing businesses to check their own ACC information on-line. The panel also recommended the Ministry of Environment provide electronic templates for applications under the Resource Management Act and set up a bulletin board.

Budget to move forward

In the first quarter of 2000 Cabinet gave approval for the Parliamentary Counsel office to establish a business case for a project that would allow New Zealanders to view all laws on-line by 2002. This would make authoritative, up-to-date, electronic versions of legislation available to the public at no charge for the first time. In Labour’s election promises it determined to achieve on-line procurement and services, and employed a number of specialists from KPMG locally and the United Kingdom to advise it on the best way forward.[4]

Proposals to transform the way the government dealt with its own departments and the public received a boost in the 2000 Budget, with around $28 million set aside for e-government and e-commerce initiatives. In announcing the new funding, Finance Minister Michael Cullen said it was important that all government information and services were made available on the Internet. Operational funding of around $16 million over four years and capital of over $1 million was put aside for the purpose. While the Internet and e-commerce had the ability to substantially improve New Zealand’s economic performance, Dr Cullen said if the country wasn’t quick enough or smart enough to make these new technologies our own, we risked falling behind the rest of the world.

A further $18 million was to be spent over four years on ICT equipment in education. An allowance of $11 million over four years was set aside to promote e-commerce, most of it going to Trade New Zealand to fund its e-commerce strategy. That included educating exporters and building and marketing a series of industry-specific web sites to help them showcase their wares offshore. The balance would go towards developing a national e-commerce strategy, harmonising e-commerce law, and addressing consumer-protection issues. The government hosted an electronic-commerce summit in November to get community and industry input into developing a ‘world-best’ e-commerce strategy. An e-government unit was established within the SSC to develop the framework, which would be taken up by other government agencies. Paul Swain said leadership, not large sums of money, was required in the vision to develop a strategy.

Despite their increasing popularity, government web sites received a big thumbs down in published reports during 2000–2001, suggesting their usefulness and ease of navigation was far from satisfactory. The site design and navigation was described by Web designers as appalling, inconsistent, and cluttered, and they were concerned that even the latest design guidelines weren’t much of an improvement. Regardless, government pages, including those of local authorities, rated consistently in the top ten sites visited by New Zealanders in any month. In three months to August 2001 almost 300,000 of the nation’s million home surfers visited at least one government site.

Kerry Hawkins of Nielsen NetRatings said the number of unique hits across 266 government sites had increased significantly. The top-rated government sites in the three months to August were the IRD, followed by NZGO or, Work and Income New Zealand, Christchurch City Council, Auckland City Council, and the Winz job-bank site. She believed it was a good idea for government to be simplifying access to its various domains through a common portal. “Lots of organisations are trying to do this.

The University of Auckland for example was bringing all the campuses, which have their own look and feel, into a single portal to streamline everything. It makes sense for the government to do the same thing so we can see what our rates and government valuation of properties are, and change the address on our driver’s licence. It would save a lot of time.”

A further comprehensive overhaul was being planned with existing New Zealand Government On-line portal developments put on hold and the promise of ‘NZGO on steroids’ by June 2002. This was part of an overall plan to improve the way government departments communicated with each other and the public. Initially new Web design guidelines would apply to core government departments, ministries and Crown agencies, and ultimately be adopted by the wider public sector, including local authorities and SOEs.

Andrea Gray, relationships manager with the SSC e-Government Unit, said various departments were being asked to describe their content and services in very specific ways so search engines could find them and the relevant documents. Metadata describing what each site had to offer, and refining the underlying keywords was pivotal. The new portal would take a thesauruslike approach, more aligned to how people think and behave. “Normal people talk about dog registration but the government calls it canine licensing,” said Gray. “This is essentially an apolitical move: everyone’s committed to making a transition. It’s not possible for governments to exist doing things they way they have over the past 100 years.” She suggested New Zealand was quite fortunate compared with the United Kingdom, where there were 500,000 civil servants and it was even more difficult to effect change.[5]

While some departments were complying, the MED’s panel on compliance costs believed others were slacking. In its July 2001 report it found significant potential for reducing compliance costs for businesses and urged Statistics NZ, the IRD, ACC, and the Ministry for the Environment to pay more attention to business interaction and disseminating information using the Internet.[6]

The new e-government portal required all agencies to comply with common business processes, data standards, and systems management. This included a cross-agency extranet for secure electronic transactions. The government planned to leverage its enormous bulk-buying power to bring down the cost of goods to its agencies, and through transparent internal technology create greater efficiencies and more reliable services.

While work continued in the background, the government was being hammered for its slowness to deliver on years of promises to create a leading-edge interface to services that would automate many of its common interactions with citizens. Reports undertaken during the latest transition didn’t necessarily reflect the current state of affairs.

Trade publication Computerworld reported State Services Minister Trevor Mallard wasn’t too worried by the low rating handed to New Zealand and its drop in ranking in the e-government stakes in April 2002. The annual E-Government Readiness survey from international consultancy Accenture dropped New Zealand to 14th place out of 23 countries surveyed, five places down on 2001.

Bulk buying bluster

In September 2001 the government called for proposals for a government electronic procurement project. Inland Revenue, Work and Income, the Fire Service, Treasury, and MAF were to be involved in the initial pilot. It was to have run until mid-2002 when a final decision on wider e-procurement would be made. Project manager Greg Nicholls, from the SSC’s e-government unit, believed there were savings to be made from syndicated procurement and process improvements building on an earlier pilot involving Work and Income. The big guns were gearing up to try to win the business, including Oracle, iPlanet, and Accenture, which had been on the acquisition trail and established a dedicated unit in New Zealand to deliver e-procurement services. There was also SupplyNet, which had introduced the latest version of the Commerce One MarketSite e-commerce management system. Also in the picture would be local player e:\\volution.[7]

According to the SSC the e-procurement system would enable government agencies to transact $1.25 billion a year with suppliers over the Internet. It was also looking at introducing e-billing. California-based Porterra was chosen to provide an e-commerce portal for sharing information between departments across a WAN. A decision was also due on a common technology infrastructure which would leverage existing government network systems. Official funding for the transition was only $16 million over four years; individual agencies would be required to cough up the rest from their own budgets. Then the Parliamentary Counsel Office signed a deal with Unisys to create a free-access database of New Zealand’s legislation on the Internet. Access was costing $220 a month or $1 for a search and $1 a document downloaded from the Knowledge Basket site. The emerging e-democracy, we were told, would enable instant public access to government information anytime, anywhere, from any device.

More than 40 percent of government forms and documents were available on-line, with wider access to a free-access on-line database of legislation promised by the end of 2002.[8] However the launch of the super portal planned for June 2002 slid out to July then was put on hold until after the elections. The delay was blamed on a need to further improve the portal’s search engine, which had been found to have a few bugs.

The government finally launched its $5.6 million Internet portal offering structured access across the web sites of government agencies on 14 November 2002. There were concerns that the growing move to working electronically might not be in the best interests of some citizens. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) thought this was just another step in government cost cutting that had seen so many departments close their front-line offices and rely on call centres for communication. CAB Chief Executive Nick Toonen said while on-line access would improve information flow, it was no substitute for person-to-person contact – something the CAB was increasingly having to provide as the government withdrew its physical presence from local communities. The government wanted the portal, costing $4 million a year, to become the dominant means of interaction with citizens by 2004. CAB was concerned that the 63 percent of New Zealand homes that didn’t have Internet access would miss out on on-line information and social services.

The portal ( was officially launched by Prime Minister Helen Clark at the Mt Wellington Community Library in Auckland. The library was charging $8 an hour for Internet access on its computers. Asked if there was any policy to provide free public access to the portal, Ms Clark said, “One step at a time.” There were still few services allowing citizens to complete transactions on-line, but there were plans to increase this over the next two years. State Services and the IRD were investigating technologies to uniquely identify users over the Internet and policy decisions were yet to be made on whether departments such as Justice and Land Information, New Zealand, would reduce their fees for electronic information or provide it for free.[9]

In October 2002 New Zealand was part of an international survey of public use of e-government. The results showed broadly that New Zealanders were aware of e-government and were likely to use it to find information and services from a single search, learn about entitlements and for convenience; for example to be reminded of obligations such as driver’s licence renewal. Businesses were also in favour of e-government, particularly if it meant lower compliance costs and more efficient delivery of information and services ‘in an easier, cheaper, more accessible and responsive, integrated, and customer-oriented way,’ so they could more easily meet their legal and regulatory obligations.

There were, however, concerns that if developed unwisely e-government could create inequities in public access and service delivery through inappropriate closure of offline channels. It could compromise privacy and security of personal information and add additional costs to the sector, including the need for more staff or increased costs of technology and training.

Refocusing the e-vision

The vision the government adopted in June 2003 was broad ranging and included clichéd ‘world leader’ aspirations. The three-point mission was that by June 2004 the Internet would be the dominant means of enabling ready access to government; by June 2007 networks and Internet technologies would be integrated to deliver government information, services and processes, and by June 2010 government would be transformed through the use of Internet. People would have a choice of channels to government information and services that were convenient and easy to use. Information and services would be integrated, packaged, and presented to minimise cost and improve results for individuals, businesses, and providers. People would be better informed and better able to participate in government, the strategy stated.

The government conceded the public sector had become fragmented, operating from a collection of silos that did not work together well, which made it hard for people to deal with the public sector as a whole. The view was that e-government should enable a more networked approach, where agencies acted more coherently. An all-of-government web site would be a first step in the transformation based on familiar-sounding goals. “Successful government will become synonymous with processes and services integrated across the traditional boundaries between government agencies, rather than ones confined to compartments. It will also mean people being able to participate more readily across a spectrum of public sector activity and processes,” said the e-government strategy summary.

So how to get there? The government’s answer was ‘a service delivery architecture and an agreed set of information and technology standards.’ The development of shared public sector data resources; building an infrastructure of shared software and hardware; and finding innovative ways of conducting business between agencies, and with citizens, customers and stakeholders was also cited.[10]

Late in 2003 government departments were beavering away on more than 100 unfinished e-government initiatives, according to a survey conducted by the SSC. Its e-government unit surveyed 36 public-sector agencies, which provided details of 150 separate initiatives, a quarter of which had been delivered. Two flagship e-government initiatives had already run into trouble. A multimillion-dollar Parliamentary Counsel Office project to electronically draft legislation and publish it on the Internet for free was facing an internal review. And the long awaited e-procurement project led by the SSC to enable government departments to buy from suppliers over the Internet was scaled back early in 2003 and would no longer deliver all the functionality originally planned.

Among new on-line plans were a decision to trial Internet voting in a constituency in ‘middle New Zealand’ in the 2008 general election and to routinely publish court judgments on the Internet for free public access. The Labour Department was pushing ahead with plans to expand its worksite job-related portal while Inland Revenue had a wide-ranging e-enablement programme. According to the SSC, agencies said their initiatives were primarily driven by the promise of improved efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and a better quality of service delivery. About one-fifth of the e-government projects involved collaboration between different agencies.

ITANZ executive director Jim O’Neill said the IT industry was seeing ‘a steady flow’ of government work but it was still sporadic. ‘Meatier’ projects in the pipeline included establishing an on-line authentication system for people accessing government services over the Web, and IT security work flowing on from September 11. “There are going to be big security-related projects that flow from being part of the worldwide trading community. Government purchases account for about 40 percent of the New Zealand IT market and are a mainstay for the big multinational IT players.”[11]

According to a government survey, about half of New Zealand now used the Internet to access government pages. Their main reason was seeking information and a growing number were downloading official forms to submit later by post or fax. Increasingly we were supplying personal details to government departments over the Internet and paying for products and government-related services on-line using our credit card or bank account numbers. In all there were about 266 government sites and the best way to maintain sanity while navigating them was to start from and return to the new central portal (

You could register a new company at the Company’s Office or get comprehensive, although somewhat outdated statistical information from Statistics NZ’s web site. To make life easier for people paying tax the IRD had been working to make more of its services available on-line and more intuitive to use. It already allowed financial advisers to file individual tax returns and companies to file monthly PAYE information on their employees. It had received 69,000 GST returns since the on-line service went live in January 2003 and more than 3000 IR3 returns were filed electronically since that became possible in April. Companies had been able to view their returns and related forms on-line since September.[12]

The e-government vision was seen as a great queue jumper. Instead of waiting in line to register a vehicle, you would be able do this from home or the office. After an accident you might need to talk to the public hospital, ACC, and Winz outlining your circumstances and needs. If those three organisations had the ability to share information and integrate their services, you might only go through that process once.

The emerging e-democracy, we were told, would enable instant public access to government information anytime, anywhere, from any device. Ultimately citizens would be able to provide feedback about quality of services or content, and contribute to proposed policies or legislation. The challenges ahead included not only bringing together in a coherent fashion all government information, forms and services, and ensuring these could be accessed by all citizens but wading through all the jargon and legalese so it could be understood by most of us without the help of a lawyer, consultant, or other high-charging, third-party interpreter.


[1] John Lozowsky came from the New York State Archives to work at New Zealand National Archives in the late 1980s at the invitation of former chief archivist Ray Grover. He had worked in New York as an IT consultant for two years and had a vision for computerisation at National Archives, enthusing many with his ideas about the application of IT. He left National Archives in 1991 and moved to the Treasury. He later worked at the Department of Health as the assistant director of IT and was the IT manager at the Ministry of Health in Wellington from January 1996 to April 1999 ( Lozowsky was contracting for international business consultancy group Marsh & McLennan, in the Twin Towers and had allegedly gone into work early on the morning of the terrorist attack so he could get home early for his son’s birthday. He died in 9/11

[2] Keith Newman, NZ Herald, May 1997

[3] NZ Herald, 2 November 1998

[4] Keith Newman interviews and research June–July 2000 including quotes published in NZ Business Times

[5] Keith Newman, ‘E’ by Govt, The Boss Magazine, October 2001 (the first and only issue)

[6] Keith Newman, ‘E-Government Evidence Urged,’ NZ Business Times column, 14 September 2001

[7] Adam Gifford, ‘Government’s e-buying scheme takes next step,’ NZ Herald, 4 September 2001

[8] Keith Newman, ‘E’ by Govt, The Boss Magazine

[9] Paraphrased from Computerworld, Stephen Bell, 15 November 2002 and other sources


[11] Tom Pullar-Strecker, ‘E-govt projects number more than 100,’ The Dominion, 29 September 2003

[12] Keith Newman, ‘Surfers wasting less time,’ Home Technology, November 2003