Australian e-government stalling – shares lessons

In a 146-page report, the Australian Senate Committee notes that there have been a  “litany of failures largely unprecedented in scale and degree” in the Australian public sector. Its assessment is that: “it has become clear to the committee that digital transformation is a policy area beset by soaring rhetoric and vague aspirations by government, largely unconnected to the actual policy activities actually undertaken.”

The report cites a whole list of failures, including outages at the Tax Office, difficulties with the Department of Human Services’ Online Compliance Intervention program and the cancellation of the Australian Apprenticeship Management System project.

Satisfaction with e-government in Australia has certainly fallen off a cliff. In 2011, 86% of Australians were satisfied with digital government services, but by 2016 (the latest data) that had dropped to 16%.

The Senate Committee blames poor digital performance on:

  • a lack of leadership vision, direction, and accountability
  • a lack of government expertise
  • an overdependence on outsourcing and consultants
  • poor scoping, costing and scheduling.

Helpfully, the report contains advice for those seeking to learn lessons on e-government transformation, and ICT system delivery.

Satisfaction with e-government is improving in the UK

Meanwhile in the UK, a country whose Public Sector has wasted vast sums on inefficient and failed IT projects, national government agencies are starting to see a glimmer of hope in terms of improving customer satisfaction.

They still only achieve a rating of 75.8, according to the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (July 2018) but this now places them mid tier in terms of verticals – well below high performers such as retail non-food (82.1) but above low performers such as telecoms (74.3) and transport (72.5).

The average NPS for the sector stands at 17.1, which again rates well below retail non food (40.5) but significantly better than low performing sectors such as transport (1.0) and utilities (-4.9).

HM Passport Office scores the highest of the UK national government agencies, with a respectable satisfaction rating of 81.1 (market leading Amazon is on 86.7).  Consistently good performers in the sector include DVLA, HM Passport Office and The Post Office. And the sector continues to show improvement, with HMRC (Inland Revenue) being the third most improved organisation this year – raising its performance by 5.6 points from 59.8 to 65.4.

E-government users in the UK are clear about what needs to improve further:

  • 32.3% want the government to make it easier for them to contact the right person
  • 28.7% want the speed of response and resolution to be improved
  • 21.3% say they just want better website navigation.

Estonia still leads the pack

Visit e-Estonia and you will hear a bold declaration. “We’ve built a society and so can you”, says the small Baltic State.

Estonia gained its independence in 1991 and after the euphoria had worn off it realised it had to do something better than its neighbours. Finland had mobile phones and a burgeoning tech industry; Sweden had Ikea, design and more mobile phones; Norway had oil. What could little Estonia do to compete? Its response was to embrace the digital economy. And it’s done that rapidly and from a very poor baseline.

  • 1991 – only half the country have phones
  • 1997 – 97% of schools are online
  • 2000 – cabinet meetings go paperless
  • 2002 – free WiFi in most populated areas
  • 2007 – e-voting introduced
  • 2012 –  fibre-optic cable laid throughout the country
  • 2012 – 94% of tax returns are done online and take less than 5 minutes to fill in
  • 2014 – e-residency introduced.

E-residency now enables you to open an Estonian company from anywhere in the world, register with a bank and start trading. The tax office is digitally linked to the banks so your tax return is largely auto-filled. So good is the Estonian system that the country dreams of exporting its capabilities to other countries – the UK, for example. It says that by making trading so much easier, it will encourage companies to set up in Estonia.

Estonia’s approach has impressed other governments enough for them to be queuing up to learn more. It has been co-operating and sharing e-government and cyber security experience with OAS, for example, which brings together 35 American countries.

Estonia points to where the UK went wrong with its failed attempt to introduce ID cards. Estonia comments that people are naturally resistant to such initiatives, but this resistance evaporates when the card (which secures identity) opens up a new raft of services. The government also champions transparency, such that users can see exactly who has accessed their data. If a citizen sees a data access they haven’t authorised, or don’t like, they can immediately report it to the data ombudsman for investigation.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Estonia has had to weather DDoS attacks that brought down government agencies, newspapers, banks and local businesses. To prevent government services from being catastrophically taken off line, the country has data embassies that enable its services to be instantly switched and running from another data centre outside Estonia.

What the Estonian example shows is that size and even military might, are no longer as strong indicators of national success as they once were. For a country of 1.3 million people Estonia is influencing way beyond its size. Key learning points are to foster trust, not make e-government political, and not get hung up on accessibility.

As Former Estonian government CIO Taavi Kotka told Computer Weekly: “One of the key success elements for e-government is never try to find a 100% solution that fits for everybody. You need to understand that if you start designing your solutions and services for, say, 85% of people, you will be way more successful than trying to design everything for 100% of the population.”

Posted by Teresa Cottam

Teresa helps B2B service providers improve their commercial results and the customer experience they deliver through research, insight and analysis that builds effective strategy. She is a judge of the GSMA GloMo's for customer experience and enterprise innovation, and for the UK Cloud awards. You can follow her on Twitter @teresacottam

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