The advantages of letting the state manage your information

by Peter Griffin / 31 July, 2017
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Big advantages are touted.

How often do you go online to deal with a Government department? Apart from logging on to pay a speed-camera fine and using the RealMe verification system to renew my passport a couple of years back, I’ve had little to do with officialdom in the digital realm.

Many people will be quite happy to keep their distance from state administrators. I’m different: I actually want more interaction.

It’s crazy that Facebook and Google tell me so much about who I am with their clever algorithms, yet my relationship with the Government is a black hole. I’m ready for a true digital dashboard of my life displaying my financial, social, work and health data – and drawing on Government-held information about me where useful. I’d opt in to that.

As the Government celebrated the five-year mark in its digital transformation programme last week, it was clear that this is the digital future it also has in mind. How might that look?

“Your bank will tell you when you are getting closer to 65 and that you might be eligible for superannuation,” said Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne. “You click a box and the application form is taken care of, and on the due date, your superannuation payment arrives.”

What else?

“You’re sitting at home and have just booked that great trip to Europe,” said the Government’s chief information officer, Colin MacDonald. “Because you have given Air New Zealand’s website permission, it pops up and says your passport is going to expire before you go on your travels: ‘would you like to apply now?’ It is all done there and then from the Air New Zealand website.”

These are relatively minor things but show how life could be more convenient when online services in the private realm draw on Government data.

Of course, the reason Facebook knows me better than I know myself is that I have given it permission to interrogate all my data. I doubt most citizens will ever be comfortable with the Government doing that. It has already run into trouble with efforts to gather and aggregate big data to drive its social investment agenda, something that goes much deeper than just providing better services to citizens online.

Just using RealMe, which now has more than 300,000 verified accounts, means the sort of integration outlined above can happen without Government departments giving Air New Zealand or the banks any information about you. That info remains secure in the RealMe database. It’s a bit like how you can now use your Google or Facebook authenticator to log into a huge number of online services, taking the hassle out of remembering multiple passwords.

New Zealand really rates itself when it comes to making progress in the digital transformation of Government. It is part of the Digital 5 group of the “most digitally advanced nations”, alongside the UK, Israel, Estonia and South Korea. You can now pay your taxes, book a Department of Conservation hut and update your electoral roll details online.

There are apparently 90 services from 32 Government agencies and businesses available through RealMe, with a further 12 allowing you to use RealMe to verify your identity.

The biggest success has been the passport application system, even though it crashed the day of the Government’s big milestone celebration. About 855,000 passport applications have been filed online since the 2012 launch of the service, which lets you upload a passport photo and have it automatically vetted.

A new service called SmartStart, launched in December, lets you register online the due date and the birth of a child and gives useful information to expectant and new parents. About 5000 births have been registered. Moving online cuts down on hassle and paperwork and also saves money: $107 million so far, apparently.

Still, there are gaps in online delivery across Government departments; MacDonald says “collaboration on steroids” will need to happen to get that private-sector integration going.

Trust in Government services and security of our data are critical. If those things can be satisfied, bring on the merger of Government and private services in the digital world.

This article was first published in the July 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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