it.gen.nz

Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Does Government “Get” the Web?

This week on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the core government web site at newzealand.govt.nz, how it’s starting to use some of the ideas of Web 2.0, and how the government is releasing the software that runs it as free software under the GPL.

A: You remember how a couple of week s ago I talked a little about the relaunch of New Zealand’s core government website. Well, that’s the direct successor of the original New Zealand government website from about 1995. I know a bit about this, because I was working for the government at the time and I had a lot to do with that early website being put together. At the time, I knew there was no way I could persuade anyone in government to put up money for a web server – most people didn’t know what the web was at that stage – so we did a deal with Victoria University of Wellington which had some people in it who did understand, and they had space on a server which they let the government use. That was right back in the early days; I’m happy to say that within a couple of years, government had bought servers of its own, and most of the government departments had started their own servers so the core one could concentrate on helping people find things on the others.

Q: The different government department sites are quite different from each other, aren’t they?

A: Yes. Each department or government agency operates its own server – or buys space on a commercial host. Some departments operate several different websites for different things.

Q: What’s the difference between a web site and web server?

A: A server is a piece of hardware whose job is to serve websites. A site is a harmonious set of web pages with a common domain name, like www.radionz.co.nz.

And each government website is designed for their own purposes so they all look a bit different to the user. But they also have some common themes. There’s a fairly prescriptive document called the government web standards that all government departments and similar agencies have to follow when designing web pages. Anyone listening who’s an aspiring web designer would be well advised to track down a copy and look at them.

Q: What do these standards say?

A: Quite a lot – but one of the main things they are there for is to try to make government web pages accessible. People who are blind, or who need the fonts cranked to huge and a high-contrast screen to see anything, have needs that many web designers won’t have thought of. A beautiful site with tiny, elegant fonts in mid grey on light grey just isn’t going to work for some people. Neither are pages that take forever to download on the kind of slow modem links that rural people have to put up with. The web standards are full of concrete advice – well, it’s more than advice if you’re in the government, but it’s good advice anyway – on how to design sites so that everyone can see and use them. And the standards say other things, like having a “Contact us” page, having a Site map page, lots of things that just add commonality so that people can get used to getting the same information in the same way across government sites.

Q: This new core site – it’s there to help you find things on all the others?

A: Mainly that’s what it’s there for. And it does that using a very sophisticated searching system.

Q: How does that work?

A: It’s actually based on the Windows Live search – you know, Microsoft’s answer to Google. Microsoft’s searching tool goes around and checks every New Zealand government web page on a regular schedule – just as it does for the rest of the world wide web – so that it can build a giant index of everything that’s out there. And you could go to the Windows Live search page and ask it for search results that just applied to the New Zealand government, and you’d get some. But this site goes rather better than that in two ways – firstly it explicitly includes sites that your or I might regard as part of the government but which don’t have a dot govt address – and the other thing is that the Windows Live search results are put through another third party service which categorises them. That’s quite a lot more useful than just the raw search output which a traditional web text search would give you.

Q: How does that work?

A: If you go to the site at newzealand.govt.nnz and type your favourite search term, like, say “Vulture”, you get a list of documents mentioning the word in the centre of the screen. All well and good, but down the left hand side of the screen you get a list of contexts – so for the “Vulture” example, you get “Bird Hazards”, “Science”, “Images”, “Culture”

Q: Culture?

A: Culture vulture, you know. Breaking the search results into categories makes them a lot more useful. Another one I tried is “Maori declaration of independence”. You get a lot of hits, and they are split out into categories like the Treaty, Culture, University, Policy and so forth.

There’s another rather interesting angle to the core site at newzealand.govt.nz – it follow a lot of the principles of Web 2.0 – you know, the notion that you build things in your site for people for to recycle in their own sites.

Q: How does that work?

A: several ways in this case – for instance the search tool is free to download and you could put it straight onto your own website. So, you can add it your journalists’ research site for instance and search the government web without ever having to go to the government site. The government site also provides XML feeds of various things, like lists of government agencies, that other sites can crunch up and use in their inner workings. And, the software which drives this site – built on open source – is being released under the GPL. I’m really impressed by this. It shows that the government does “get” free software and its trying to play its part by putting things into the Internet so that we can all use them – as well as the information, and if its government information its our information – they are publishing online, the government is publishing the software we have paid for it to develop on our behalves. That’s a good move and one I hope gathers steam across the whole of government.

Q: What things does the government use the web for?

A: As I say, it delivers a great deal of information over the web. As a journalist you’d know all about the Official Information Act – that says, basically, that the government has to give you any information it holds about anything at all if you ask for it, subject only to a few very specific grounds on which it can refuse, like national security. That’s a really strong piece of legislation – most countries have something similar – even the UK put one in recently, but they are mainly hedged about with caveats that give government departments an out so they don’t have to release anything embarrassing. Ours doesn’t give government that option. Public servants are told – when you are writing, imagine this was being printed in the newspaper, because it might be one day.

Anyway, the Official Information Act contains within its preamble language to the effect that making government information widely available will lead to better government.

Q: That must be uncomfortable for some of the people in government!

A: Well it is, but I think most public servants really believe in the OIA. As Nietszche said, that which does not kill me makes me strong. And publishing pretty much everything that government does straight onto the Internet is a good way to honour the spirit of the OIA. And another example of this is the full database of New Zealand legislation which has, finally, been published online. So you and I can go and read the law of the land from our computers. And another good site to go and look at is Parliament’s own site – there you can find out what’s going on, what bills have called for submissions, and who the MPs are.

Q: OK, so there’s a huge amount of government information up there, and the new site helps people find things within that – but what else does the government do with the Internet?

A: There’s a lot of government services online. If it makes sense for something to be done online, you will probably find that it is being done online. For instance, if you want to relicense your car, you can do that through the Land Transport website. When they send you a reminder letter it has a code on it that you can key into the website, give it your credit card number, and off you go.

Q: What about security? What if someone else got your reminder letter?

A: If they want to pay my car licence I’d be very happy! And the credit card numbers are protected online just as they are by online retailers – in fact, I think in that example, the car licensing one, you are taken to a screen at Westpac Bank which handles the actual transaction. And there are lots of other examples. Those of us who have to pay GST and provisional tax can do so online – and why wouldn’t you, it’s a lot faster. Incidentally New Zealand gets pinged on the international measures of putting government services online because we haven’t put the regular tax returns online.

Q: Surely we got rid of those altogether!

A: Exactly. Most countries haven’t gone that far but they have put them online. But in New Zealand most people don’t have to fill in a tax return at all so the question doesn’t make sense for us, and we lose points in the international surveys.

So that’s another thing you can use the core government site at newzealand.govt.nz for – finding out if what you want from government or your local council is available online. Dog licences, IRD numbers, ERO reports for schools, etc. Just go to the site and type what you are looking for into the search box.

Links

The core government web site at newzealand.govt.nz.

The government web standards.

The Official Information Act on the legislation site, and Parliament’s site.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  

5 Comments

  1. You still can’t pay your ACC levies online. Either send a cheque or traipse into a NZ Post Shop. How much does processing all those cheques cost?

    Comment by Chris W — 27 March 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  2. I hit this one as well and sent them a grumpy email. They replied with a bank account number and I paid direct. ACC seems to have gone backward on this one – two years ago payment online was given as an option on their invoice.

    It’s not good enough. We should be complaining about it.

    Comment by colin — 28 March 2008 @ 6:12 am

  3. I am a business contractor and as such go into a number of businesses and that often means I use government sites not only in NZ but also overseas particularly UK and Australia.

    The NZ sites are in my opinion are far better to use. This probably has less to do with the technology and more to do with the legislation overseas.

    Examples – the UK companies office closes down their site for searching overnight – useless when you are sitting in NZ.
    ASIC in Australia shows you that a company exists but very little else.
    NZ allows you to see, print, download almost everything.

    The IRD allows more online filing than overseas. What do you mean that the ordinary tax returns are not online. Some are, I have not sent them an Income Tax Return (IR3) or GST return in hardcopy for two years now. And there is no requirmenet to file an IR5 these days but you can request a Personal Tax Summary online.

    Working with the NZ government online is getting easier but still has some way to go. But for me they are better to deal with than others.

    Colin I agree, open government is strong government.

    Comment by Peter — 28 March 2008 @ 8:36 am

  4. Peter

    What I meant by tax returns not being online was that, while many countries are out there busy putting their personal tax return form online, New Zealand got rid of its IR5 altogether. Obviously that’s better, but it means that we sometimes score lower than we otherwise would on international e-government surveys because we can’t tick a box saying “most people have an online tax return” or some such.

    Regarding open government – I go with US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis who wrote sunlight is the best disinfectant. To me, it’s no coincidence that New Zealand has both a very open government system and a remarkably corruption-free one.

    Regards

    Colin

    Comment by colin — 28 March 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  5. IRD is super slow though. Tax season in Australia finishes on the 30th June. I could log into the ATO website, download my information and submit my tax return on July 1st. I would have my refund no more than 14 days later into my bank account.

    NZ tax season ends 31st March and apparently I have to wait until May befor I can complete my tax return online?????

    Comment by Ben Holloway — 15 April 2009 @ 4:03 pm

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