NZ's digital transformation: the making of

By David Donaldson

September 11, 2015

While many government websites struggle to get the basics of usability right, a redesign of the New Zealand government’s digital presence encountered an unusual problem — it was easy to use and citizens could find information, but it was too casual.

Faced with over 500 central governments websites — they stopped counting when they reached the 500 mark — the NZ government decided to create one central site based on Britain’s lauded, a single location where all the common transactions required by citizens would be located.

Initially working with the source code for, the NZ team conducted alpha and beta tests, collected user feedback and eventually made the decision to completely re-make it. “Within six weeks we changed it dramatically, despite all that hard work,” Secretary of Internal Affairs Colin MacDonald (pictured above) told the Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference last month.

MacDonald, who is charged with leading the digital transformation across the NZ government, explained that, although a lot of work had been put into developing the system, changing it “was exactly the right thing to do”.

A more colourful beta site.
A more colourful beta site.

“Yes it was nice and easy to use, people could find the information, it was fantastic — but it didn’t feel like government. It didn’t feel authoritative,” he said. While the site’s designers assumed citizens would approach the site as a fresh new experience, they instead brought their accumulated emotional baggage of dealing with government with them. Ironically, some customers were suspicious that it was too easy to use.

The website today.
The website today.

“So we did some things, we changed the typeface, we changed the colours to make it look a little more stern. So it was interesting that our effort to become really user-centric led to such a different experience for users they didn’t trust it to the level we wanted them to,” said MacDonald.

Private sector should not deliver government identity services

One of New Zealand’s big feats has been the implementation of the RealMe identity verification service, which started out as a purely government product and has now been extended to New Zealand Post.

“There are three things that this authentication product can do,” said MacDonald. “The first is help you log on to a service. The second thing is to verify your identity. But importantly, the third thing is to allow you to change information in a way that you can control and you can manage.”

“There’s lots that the private sector can do, but confirming somebody is who they say they are … I’m not sure that that’s such a wise decision.”

Referencing comments made by Department of Human Services’ Tam Shepherd that customers are often frustrated at the bureaucracy involved in a simple act such as changing one’s address in an agency database, MacDonald stated:

“In future, online when you change your address, all of the agencies to whom you’ve given permission will be able to receive that address change. That’s the plan. If you don’t have the identity piece solved, in my view getting the digital piece solved will just simply not happen.”

But he argued that the British approach of allowing the private sector to play a significant role in government identity verification services was potentially a bad idea.

“I’m not convinced this is something we can leave to the private sector,” he said. “There’s lots that the private sector can do, but confirming somebody is who they say they are to the level of authority that we in government want, I’m not sure that that’s such a wise decision. But only time will tell.”

Passports in no time

The digital overhaul is also about rethinking what citizens want from government.

“People don’t get up in the morning and think, I’d really like to get in touch with the Department of Internal Affairs today — I think I’ll give them a ring … and we’ll have a nice wee chat,” he observed.

“Figuring out design around life events I think is crucial … we can’t stay within our own organisational silos and do that.”

Instead, they are getting in contact because there’s something that needs resolving.

“They tend to give us a ring when they want to go overseas, as an example. They want to get a passport. Well actually they don’t want to get a passport, they want to travel. So we put a lot of energy into making it really, really easy to get your passport.

“We’re the only country in the world where you can apply for and have your passport approved online and have it be sent out to you, typically in about 3 to 4 days. It’s a fabulous service.”

Shaping services around life events

The next step will be to integrate such services into people’s lives.

“Perhaps on the Air New Zealand website when you try to book your flight it can say, well actually you don’t have a valid travel document, would you like to apply now?” he suggested.

They have started work on modelling how services are used around four life events, though MacDonald admits “this is, sadly, a relatively slow process.”

The first life event to be examined is the birth of a child. The hope is that, rather than having to register with a range of agencies one by one, “you’ll be able to go to this app, and everything will be there to access and for you to use”, allowing parents to access such services when it’s convenient for them.

But executing this approach effectively will be harder than it looks.

“Figuring out design around life events I think is crucial. It’s also hugely challenging because we can’t stay within our own organisational silos and do that,” argued MacDonald. “In fact, I believe this is the most fundamental challenge to our current operating model in terms of government. This will be a very big issue to solve.”

The big secret of digital transformation, he says, is that the majority of the changes being undertaken are not actually technology problems. “This is really about transforming government,” he explains.

“We lose the trust if we don’t transform the services to look much more like the services citizens see in the rest of the world.”

Nonetheless, the digital metrics are impressive. Currently around 46% of New Zealanders’ most common transactions are online. Although there is a long way to go until they reach the KPI of 70% of services being digitalised by 2017, it compares well to Victoria, for example, where around 1% of services are fully online.

RealMe incorporates 62 login services delivered through 20 agencies. There are more than 2 million accounts driving millions of logins, and 60,000 verified accounts. The website sees 20,000 visitors per day, and 800,000 users in the three months previous.

The reason such change is important is “all of this is supported by increased public trust and confidence,” MacDonald argued.

“Citizens don’t have choice about who they can draw services from, so service quality and efficiency becomes one of the pillars that underpins trust and is part of the fundamental relationship between the citizen and the government. Therefore it’s incredibly important that we maintain that trust.

“But we lose the trust if we don’t transform the services to look much more like the services citizens see in the rest of the world. We do this badly and we breach privacy, we lose trust. If we don’t do it, we lose trust. Our only choice is to do it well and maintain trust.”

Read more at The Mandarin: Result 10 bringing better outcomes for New Zealanders

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