One of the overlooked aspects of e-government is the ability to conduct government-to-government (G2G) transactions. By passing electronic information amongst themselves, local, state and federal governments can cooperate more effectively and support each other in their respective missions.
Governmental rhetoric about the importance of the Internet has been thick and fast on the ground for years, and Australia's efforts to move various layers of government online have arguably put us among the world's e-government leaders. Yet despite the hype and backslapping, any impartial assessment of the government's progress makes it clear that we have still barely scraped the surface of the possibilities - and the challenges - that e-government presents.
The most recent milestone in Australia's push towards e-government came at the end of last year, when the deadline for the Howard government's 1997 edict to have all essential government services online by the end of 2001 was finally reached. Signs are encouraging, on the surface: even by mid-year, some 93 per cent of Commonwealth agencies were online, and by year's end the show of force confirmed that better use of the Net has indeed become a government priority.
Just what departments are doing with the Net is another matter entirely, however: most government departments have set up a rudimentary online presence and are just beginning to experiment with minor transactional capabilities.
State and local governments have followed suit, but they too are focusing more on G2C (government to consumer) initiatives aimed at improving delivery of standard information to the populace. Less developed is G2B (government to business) commerce, and barely a blip on the radar screen is G2G (government to government) commerce.
If recent assessments of the government's online efforts are any indication, these forms of online collaboration are still little more than specks on the horizon. In September, the Audit Office of New South Wales tabled a report on the state's e-government efforts, Use of the Internet and Related Technologies to Improve Public Sector Performance (www.audit.nsw.gov.au/perfaud-rep/e-govt-sept01/e-govt-contents.html), which highlighted just how little real progress had been made.
"The ambitions the government had publicly stated were very high," says Stephen Horne, performance audit director with the Audit Office of NSW and one of the report's authors. "We found progress had been slower, and found a bunch of impediments to things progressing.
"An awful lot of activity had gone into developing Web sites and putting simple services online. But the greater value doesn't lie in that; it lies in re-engineering government processes to make use of this wonderful new technology to save costs, provide better services, and make the so-called seamless government happen. We found very little evidence of that, and there are a whole lot of tricky questions that nobody had answers to yet."
As Australia's largest state, the experience of NSW is a good indicator of just how far there is to go. While it's perhaps unfair to expect dramatic changes in government structure over the course of just a few years, it's important to realise that G2G is potentially the most important thing to hit Australia's government since federation a century ago.
Using the Internet as a common thread, G2G will allow government departments at all levels to communicate freely - and, by extension, to collaborate - in projects that will streamline the delivery of services involving more than one department. In the long term, such efforts will make G2G a major catalyst for government realignment: by smoothing data interchange, departments could be restructured along task-oriented lines instead of being grouped into arbitrary clusters of loosely related functions.
That model has already been followed, to some extent, in the Commonwealth government's push to expose all government functions to the public through what will eventually be 18 portals targeted at specific audiences and life stages. This approach is commendable in that it recognises the need to break down the silo mentality that has dominated government for centuries. But it also falls far short of addressing the underlying organisational changes that need to take place before G2G can become anything more than another good Internet idea.
As a concept, G2G is the most nebulous and most complex flavour of online commerce. Thanks to a morass of individual policies and procedures, collaboration between government departments can be difficult at the best of times. Where departments are working together, it's often the result of top-down directives from the Premier's Office - or, in the case of Commonwealth departments, the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE).
It's not entirely fair to blame individual departments for lack of vision when it comes to pursuing G2G initiatives. They are, after all, simply one of many heads on the hydra that is government. As the lumbering beast crawls online, government IT managers have more immediate concerns: ever-present budget crunches, changing departmental structures and priorities, potentially prohibitive legal frameworks, and spotty penetration of the necessary IT infrastructure.
Even more problematic, many government bodies are still laying the foundations of e-government; for them, G2G is still a faraway concept.
But that doesn't mean it's not important. The City of Stonnington, in inner-city Melbourne, has been building out the online infrastructure that revenue and systems manager Mark Kallady believes will ultimately position the council as a major liaison between ratepayers, the council and other government bodies.
"We're looking at crossing not only different departments, but other councils as well," Kallady explains. "The goal at this stage is that we will become the central point of contact. You can combine and link [services] in new ways, and we're looking to have a full e-business situation where all our entered relationships are transacted on the same basis. But the back end is the hardest thing to get in place."
NOIE's showcase of best-practice examples in integrated online government (www.govonline.gov.au/projects/strategy/better_practice) only included five working entries at the time of writing, none with the killer-app status that would signal G2G had come into its own.
Indeed, many early G2G initiatives were born out of need as much as anything else. After The Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs decided to abolish Recruitment Services Australia in 1998, for example, DCITA quickly went searching for an alternative method of processing thousands of graduate applications it uses to hire new recruits.
The answer came in the form of an online recruitment service from NGA.net, whose hosted service automatically sorts graduate applications. Seven other departments piggybacked on the DCITA contract, and continue their informal work together to exchange and process around 5000 applications a year.
The system has significantly streamlined the graduate recruitment process, says Jenny Ransley, previously with DCITA and now assistant manager with the Department of Family and Community Services. "It was a very sensible process and has been easy to deal with," she explains. "We were in a consortium that shared training and development activities for graduates; this lessened the cost of training and meant that graduates met graduates in other departments. Now it's all online, and graduates can apply for eight departments at once. We've been very happy with the quality of the graduates that reach us online."
In It Together
Whereas commercial entities have shareholder profits and customer retention to motivate them, governments have the unique luxury of being in non-competitive situations that allow them to move as quickly or slowly as they like. While many departments now operate under customer service charters that are well fulfilled by online initiatives, the biggest driver for change within government may well be budget pressure - particularly with the federal budget having recently returned to deficit.
For G2G might be a viable option, and departments have to wait until their intended partners progress to the stage where they're ready to participate. This requirement has led to a spotty and largely unstructured environment for current G2G projects, where online services support specific projects rather than driving wholesale change in business processes.
"There's not too much happening between local and federal government," says Rod Oxley, general manager of the City of Wollongong, NSW. "Local governments have a lot more interaction with the states. We're providing advice, support and assistance to them in several areas. You do need to have the infrastructure available and back-office information systems there to get the best advantage. It's important that local government authorities invest the time and money to do this kind of thing."
Wollongong's biggest G2G effort so far has been using its geographical information systems (GISs) to collaborate online with organisations such as the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority and Department of Transportation. Working together, the organisations have used GISs for projects such as mapping flooding and land erosion, and plotting bus routes. Wollongong has progressively implemented a variety of SAP R/3 services, which are currently focused internally but will eventually facilitate inter-council collaboration.
While local councils focus on improving their own systems before looking to their peers, state governments have the luxury of a top-down approach that has helped them drive online dogma on a large scale. For local governments, the nearest equivalent is the efforts of formal consortia that are fostering the G2G mentality within their constituencies.
The Municipal Association of Victoria, for example, is working to develop a planning module that automatically routes planning applications to the appropriate body for consideration. For its part, the Office of Western Sydney (www.westernsydney.nsw.gov.au) is coordinating several western Sydney councils' efforts to build common IT strategies. These goals were embodied in a June 2001 report that set out a strategic framework for regional councils.
Actually realising the report's goals is going to take a lot more than talk. "In general, the government has been talking a lot about ESD but it's focused heavily on information," says Maria Cabrera, manager of IT and information services with Bankstown City Council, whose IT systems support 55,000 residential ratepayers and over 600 staff. "In order to have effective ESD, internal operations need to be reworked or whatever electronic initiative you take is bound for failure. For now, we're staying with a best-of-breed integrated business solution."
That doesn't mean standing still, however. In March, the council announced it would enhance this solution with a $3.8 million project stemming from a business improvement team audit that identified 472 business processes needing integration. Due to go live by November, the project will be managed by the Geac Deloittes consortium and include substantial changes to Bankstown's e business, networking, desktop, property and document management systems.
"The council took a total business solution, and said that to support the whole of our business we needed to review what we were doing," says Cabrera. "It was felt that a new approach needed to be taken in order to deal with the [various] issues in our organisation."
Many Rivers to Cross
While back-end diversity continues to present nagging communications problems within government, there is some hope. By December, almost all Commonwealth departments were online with FedLink, a secure virtual private network (VPN) that uses the Internet to provide a minimum common standard for intercommunications. This will put all the departments on the same basic framework for communications, potentially facilitating online services that transcend departmental boundaries.
But ubiquitous connectivity is just one of the many pieces to this puzzle. Broader use of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) will likely be another, allowing departments to transcend the limitations of individual methods for describing data. Also important are the major strides taken by the Gatekeeper public key infrastructure program, which last year awarded full accreditation to three companies and laid the foundation for government-private sector interoperability using bank-issued ABN-DSC certificates.
Last year also saw full implementation of the Commonwealth Electronic Transactions Act 1999, which added electronic means to the methods by which parties can indicate consent, and forced Commonwealth departments to accept electronic communications. Although it doesn't affect state or local government bodies, the Act sets a standard that will no doubt encourage those bodies to take similar actions.
Technical issues aside, government bodies need to address their obligations under laws such as the Commonwealth Privacy Act, which could potentially limit their ability to exchange information about citizens. Other issues - such as a fairly inflexible human resources system, difficult skilling issues, a large and diverse workforce and a highly regulated environment - all continue to be obstacles.
"The impediments that make reforming government are as difficult with e' as with anything else," says Horne. "In many cases, privacy issues were slowing down projects because agencies were becoming fearful they would breach privacy requirements. Some major initiatives that could have been quite useful sat on the back burner. That's the death of e-projects now: they become too expensive and just die away.
"The answer is to start untying the knots before you dive in and start playing; governments have to work out the underlying philosophy and working arrangements. This takes an awful lot of thinking, consultation and negotiation, and that's slow, hard yards."
NOIE has been working tirelessly to facilitate this consultation, directing Commonwealth agencies and hoping that state and local government will follow. Its aim is to bridge the gaps that have traditionally hindered collaboration between departments, paving the way for closer relationships based on focused online services.
Lisa Shishido, senior e-government analyst with IDC Australia, believes the desire is there, but blames the hierarchical nature of government for the lack of more concrete G2G success. "NOIE is definitely pushing cross-agency collaboration," she agrees, "and with the establishment of different standards and interoperable systems I think agencies have realised they have to let go of the silo mentality. It's really a culture of consensus building: there is a lot of commitment at the top, but between strategy and implementation things become sticky."
IDC expects public sector IT spending in Australia will grow from $US2.7 billion last year to $US4 billion by 2005, and much of this growth will pertain to efforts to increase the role of e-government. This increased funding will no doubt mean more money to support G2G efforts, but without significant change even this will mean little. At the current pace, the race towards realising the benefits of G2G may take even longer than anybody expects.
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