E-government is a dangerous tightrope

Today, the New Zealand government revealed its latest growth and budget forecasts, and admitted that things look worse than they were feared earlier.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

Today, the New Zealand government revealed its latest growth and budget forecasts, and admitted that things look worse than they were feared earlier.

Growth rates have been downgraded, and earlier commitments to return the budget to surplus within a few years may now not be met. Such forecasts have renewed fears of a butchery of the public service, with cost-cutting lay-offs fuelled by a switch to e-government.

Earlier this week, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key raised the prospect of the country's citizenry communicating with various government departments through the use of smartphones. Back-office functions would be merged, and there would be greater use of call centres.

Overseas companies may also be engaged to run operations, and Key revealed that he has met with Google to see how such a situation might work. He cited Air New Zealand as an example for the public sector to follow in its greater use of technology.

ICT Minister Amy Adams also spoke on how government would also use more ICT in its delivery.

Naturally, we have seen warnings from the opposition Labour Party and the unions, both of which fear the impact of job losses and on the quality of such public services. They raised the prospect of call centres being overseas, but we have heard no talk yet of where such future call centres might be located.

As far as I know, all government call centres are based here in New Zealand, and there has been a recent trend for offshore call-centre work to return "home", particularly with the telcos.

Wellington's tech sector has also warned government to keep future technology work in New Zealand.

Certainly, considering that the government has social and economic goals, it would be folly to send work offshore and use foreign businesses if it came at the price of unemployment and damaging our own tech sector. The government needs to look at the wider costs of any off-shoring or overseas firms winning contracts.

However, perhaps the greater concerns about the government's cuts, and its move to e-services, are fears that we will have a "Google government", which is alienated from the populace.

It's all well and good having an efficient, tech-led government, where services can easily be accessed online by the educated and tech savvy, but the government must consider those who are not, such as the poor and elderly, who tend to be the greatest users of government services in many cases.

There will be people who simply "want to talk to someone", something recognised by Barclays Bank when automation was in its infancy, as shown by the bank's classic 1985 TV commercial from director Ridley Scott after he made the movie Blade Runner.

Prime Minister John Key is right to raise efficiency savings and how services and public interaction with government can be made better through a greater use of technology; however, he must walk a tightrope between maintaining standards of customer service and cutting too far.

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