Earlier this week, in my capacity as Minister of Internal Affairs responsible for the delivery of on-line government services, I hosted officials from the D5 group of countries at a planning meeting in Wellington. Now, most people will not have heard of the D5, or know anything about it, but it is arguably one of the most important international groupings New Zealand could be part of at the start of the 21st century.
The D5 was established just under two years ago and comprises the five most digitally advanced governments in the world. Its make-up, which will surprise, is Britain, New Zealand, Korea, Israel and Estonia. Estonia, the small Baltic state of just 1.3 million people, is probably the most digitally advanced country on earth. Once it became independent of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Estonia focused immediately on developing a digitally based society and economy, with breathtaking results. Britain and New Zealand are on a similar plane of moving steadily towards providing more and more government services on-line – in New Zealand we are on track to achieving 70% of the ten most common transactions people have with government being carried out on-line by 2017. For Israel and Korea the driver has been different – national security considerations have been the dominant factors for obvious reasons.
Many New Zealanders, I suspect, would be very surprised to learn how advanced we are by international standards and of the leading role we are playing in this space. We tend to take for granted our already high uptakes of digital services – that over 80% of tax returns are completed on-line (the comparable figure in Estonia is 96%); that around 50% of passport renewals are done on-line and that about 85% of births are now registered on-line, to name a few. More and more government services are now being provided on-line, and, just as we have become accustomed to doing our banking, paying our household bills and a range of other activities on-line, at a time and a place of our convenience and choice, so too has it become with government services. And the driver is the individual: more and more people are demanding the provision of services on-line, and the government machine is running harder than ever, just to keep up. And so it should.
The D5 partnership offers not just the opportunity to improve the delivery of on-line government services in New Zealand, but also for greater co-operation and partnership with the other member states. The next level is equally important – the opportunities this type of partnership can provide for our individual IT industries to partner and work together are immense and should not be overlooked.
At the same time, however, we must remain acutely aware that all this is premised on the provision of personal information and a high degree of trust from individuals that their data so provided is secure and will not be misused. So an equally strong thrust of the D5’s work will be to ensure that there are strong personal privacy laws and protections in place for our citizens, and that cybersecurity generally is taken extremely seriously. In Estonia, for example, every citizen has the right at any time to see who or which agency has been accessing their data, and to take action if that is considered to be improper. We already acknowledge cybersecurity as an important element of our overall IT strategy, but we should also look at personal privacy protection like Estonia’s.
And we also have to ensure that the range of services we are providing on-line is purposeful and valuable to citizens. In this context, a mechanism like Britain’s Social Value Act, passed in 2012, becomes important. It requires public bodies to consider how the services they provide contribute to economic, social and environmental well-being. In other words, are services effective and providing a wider benefit to the community as a whole? This lines up fairly well with the some of the thinking behind the government’s developing social investment model, and deserves further consideration.
The D5 meeting in Wellington this week may have passed quietly and without notice, but the work we are involved in through this partnership will have a most profound impact on all our lives in the future, and we have every reason to be proud of the innovative New Zealand role is playing here.