Governments around the world are under pressure to dramatically improve public sector performance and streamline the way their agencies do business. The aim of the game is to do more with less, as citizens demand better targeted public spending in the name of lower taxes and more customised services in the name of citizens' choice. And that demand for customer choice is in turn giving governments little choice but to explore new modes of service delivery.
As Commonwealth Service Delivery Agency IT theme leader Vic Rogers puts it: "The customer demand is there. You've got to the stage where David Jones expects to do a reasonable amount of sales through its Web site, and governments must follow. The community is driving everyone."Naturally, IT&T has an essential role to play in this significant and substantial re-engineering of government. And if such re-engineering is complicated by a highly competitive environment where governments must redefine not only their own business but to whom and how services should be delivered, it is being simplified to some extent by new delivery mechanisms like Electronic Service Delivery (ESD).
The simple fact is advances in technology have dramatically raised citizens' expectations about public sector service delivery. Taxpayers are growing increasingly impatient with the complexity involved in accessing government services; with the need to duplicate information across agencies; and with requirements to visit numerous sites to register and negotiate what should be fairly simple transactions.
They expect governments to break down the walls between agencies in order to unify services and simplify their delivery. And they are increasingly demanding 24-hour-a-day access to state, local and federal government information electronically, whether over the Internet, through a kiosk in the local shopping centre or via telephone using interactive voice response software. The assumption is that government should be able to make the full gamut of government information freely available to citizens via their choice of technologies.
Gradually, in the hasten-slowly mode that sits most comfortably with public servants, agencies are gearing up to deliver. Electronic service delivery initiatives are occurring at many levels. In Victoria, for instance, Premier Jeff Kennett has set a goal of delivering all government services electronically by 2001. The ACT government has been examining options which would allow it to begin building the most advanced broadband network in Australia.
And Tasmania has a project called Networking Tasmania, being used by the Tasmanian government as a means of improving the communications services available to the public. The Commonwealth Office of Government Information Technology (OGIT) is represented on the Tasmanian WAN Steering Committee and Common-wealth staffing will assist in the project.
Meanwhile senior ministers from the Commonwealth, state, territory and local governments have formed an Online Government Council to develop a national approach to online communications and electronic services delivery. The council is to meet regularly to coordinate their efforts to provide equitable and seamless access to government information and services in convenient locations and in a manner suiting their needs.
While this work goes on, governments are working hard to re-engineer businesses to enhance service delivery strategies in the face of budget imperatives and community expectation. As OGIT business reprocess design director Christabel Wright puts it: "Confronted with increased community demand for quality services, the imperative is to find innovative ways of providing those services, not only cheaper, but better."OGIT is charged with adding significant value to Commonwealth agencies' application of Information Management & Communications in improving program delivery and administration.
At the Commonwealth level, the most visible face of dramatically re-engineered service delivery is the new Commonwealth Service Delivery Agency. The agency was formed in response to long-standing concerns by ministers, departments, advocates and customers about the complexity of accessing government services, particularly for the unemployed.
By combining the service delivery functions of at least three separate agencies, the new agency is intended to not only improve access to government, but also to make government services simpler, friendlier and more personal and to streamline the way government does business, according to Chief Executive Officer Sue Vardon. With a budget in excess of $40 billion, it will deliver almost all the services of the Department of Social Security (DSS) and about one-third of those of the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA). By next year it will also deliver the Child Care Cash Rebate for the Department of Health and Family Services (HFS).
Currently benchmarked as a "middle ranking organisation with the Forum Corporation database" according to the Australian National Audit Office, Vardon hopes re-engineering will allow DSS to move from middle ranking to the top of the international list. Much hard work and careful thought have gone into the work of improving its customer service.
Then there is the pressing need to contain the cost of delivering services - a pressure that is leading government increasingly to the notion of contestability. In this context, contestability means the introduction of alternative providers of services and activities previously provided solely by the public sector. The hope is that contestability will achieve the lowest possible cost and improved efficiency. These days, services traditionally provided by government might well be offered by not only the public but also the community and/or private sector.
Governments in Europe, the US, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and some Australian states and territories have introduced competition into their activities. As Finance Department assistant secretary Dr Sylvie Trosa sees it, contestability is unavoidable. "Actual competition between public services and between the public service and the private sector is a worldwide phenomenon which can't be escaped because of the increased interdependency of our societies and economies," Trosa told a recent conference.
Contestability is seen as a means to the end of a better planning and budgeting system while fostering a more focused public service.
Some state governments have already outsourced their IT in the name of contestability. Federal Finance Minister John Fahey has chosen to impose IT&T contestability on reluctant agencies by mandating they market test the outsourcing of their IT&T infrastructure.
It is a highly controversial move that has raised concerns about the privacy of citizens' information, the future of local industry, possible cost blow-outs, the danger of government being locked in to a small group of multinational suppliers and even of being effectively held to ransom by the same multinationals. Opponents say such a move, which many claim to be irreversible, is likely to diminish public sector performance and even handicap future governments. Supporters say it will introduce increasingly improved IT to agencies at lower cost and enhance industry development. It's a question on which the jury is likely to be out for some considerable time to come.
Perhaps in all this upheaval, only one thing is certain. Those charged with watching government efforts to streamline the way their agencies do business and re-engineer service delivery face a fascinating and potentially enlightening future. We await each new development with interest.
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