Wednesday, 21 February 2018

This week, New Zealand is hosting one of the most important international gatherings it will have been part of for some time. No, it is not a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence and espionage partners. Nor is it anything to do with the Trans Pacific Partnership, nor any of our bilateral relations. It is a meeting of the D5, the grouping of the world's five most digitally advanced governments - Britain, Estonia, South Korea, Israel and New Zealand, and it comes as New Zealand completes its term as chair of the D5, a position it has held since November 2016. Most people will probably be quite unaware of its existence.
The D5 countries work together to share their knowledge and experiences; to enhance the opportunities for mutual co-operation; and, to promote the development of their information technology sectors. The D5's focus is very much on promoting greater uptake by citizens of digitally provided public services, as well as continuing to expand the range of government services provided on-line.
The D5 was established in 2014, following initial discussions between Britain and New Zealand earlier that year, and, after those discussions, I had the privilege, when Minister of Internal Affairs, of leading the New Zealand delegation to the inaugural meeting in 2014, and the subsequent meetings in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, I was absolutely delighted when we met in Korea in 2016 that my invitation to come to New Zealand for the next meeting was accepted. So I am thrilled to see everyone here this week, although a little disappointed that the vagaries of politics mean I no longer have a role in something I was part of for so long.
It will come as a surprise to most New Zealanders to learn that we are literally at the top of the table when it comes to the provision of on-line government services. Yes, we all know that we can renew our passports on-line; the overwhelming majority of us pay our taxes on-line, and we increasingly look to many other government services being similarly available on-line. If anything, we have taken that on-line availability a little for granted. But it is not the norm - a survey by the prestigious Fletcher Business School at Tufts University found last year that New Zealand was in the top one or two countries in the world in this regard. This is a tremendous tribute to the work of government agencies led by the Department of Internal Affairs through the Government Chief Information Officer, and the co-operation of the private sector over the years. Today, around 70% of the top ten interactions a person has with the government are carried out on-line, and the plan was to expand that considerably over the next few years. I assume that the new government shares that commitment.
For its part, the D5 has grown from being just an international talk-shop to a much more dynamic organisation, with a clearly defined work programme, and working with member countries' IT sectors to constantly improve the range and quality of on-line services. It is pleasing that as this year's D5 host, New Zealand has continued the innovation the Koreans showed in 2016 of having a major international IT sector conference immediately before the D5 Summit both to broaden the base of those involved, and draw further attention to the work of the D5.
However, amidst all the good news there remain some challenges. For many citizens, the big fear remains that the ongoing surge of digital business will be at the expense of particular groups in society - the elderly, the isolated, and the disadvantaged. In this context, the timing of Fairfax's announcement this week that it is about to close 28 small mainly provincial community newspapers and transfer their content to on-line platforms is unfortunate. I am not criticising the decision per se, but simply making the point that for some it will be just more confirmation that the move to digital means no more than the further withdrawal of once familiar community services. Similarly, the obstinate complexity of some large utilities' websites leave many yearning for the days when they could just talk to a person directly about what they wanted.
So, as the D5 nations meet this week to develop their further work programmes, there will need to be a strong emphasis on communication to the public about what is planned, and how they will be affected and able to engage with the service providers. While there is nothing to fear here, and the New Zealand experience so far shows we have better at the transformation than most, the ultimate success of the D5's mission will be measured by the level of public acceptance and confidence it engenders, not just the enthusiasm of governments. Overall, the opportunities are too big to pass up by either ignoring or squandering public goodwill. So, the more we hear about the D5 and New Zealand's role within it, the better.           




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