Monday, October 19, 2015

It was 20 years ago today

Twenty years of eGovernment and the portal in New Zealand
1. First Steps 1995-1998

In the mid-1990s, New Zealand government officials were starting to realise the potential for the Internet to change the way government communicated with the public. Two parallel initiatives were underway. In the Ministry of Commerce, the IT policy unit were developing a register of government departments and selected information about the departments. In the Department of Internal Affairs, the Government Within Reach project was building an index of the services provided by government and relating those services to individual agencies. These two approaches – what government departments do, and how information and services are accessed and perceived by the public – are common themes in the development of government portals over the last 20 years.

Ministry of Commerce

Reg Hammond and Colin Jackson were in the Ministry of Commerce IT policy unit, providing research and advice for Maurice Williamson, New Zealand’s first Minister of Information and Communications Technology. Colin managed to get hold of the dot.govt domain name, which had already been established for email use, and got a server running using The Ministry of Commerce wasn’t averse to experimentation but unwilling to make any investment. “I didn’t like my chances of going to the IT department and asking for funding to put this strange thing called a Web server in. They wouldn’t have bought that”. So he went to Victoria University and sought assistance from IT department head Frank March.

Colin tells the story: “I got some wine and cheese, invited the information people from lots of government departments, sat the projector on a desk, and showed them the web server, explaining this was now accessible from anywhere in the world. I said I want some money and your information. I asserted that this was the official government Web server and nobody questioned me, although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did give me a hard time because they hadn’t vetted it first.” 

Nathan (Nat) Norkington, a graduate student who’d been responsible for introducing web technology at Victoria University, provided a lot of the drive to get the web site operational. He began gathering the laws of New Zealand to make them more accessible to the public and ‘crawled’ government pages to download relevant information. The problem was that Government Print had sold the rights to all New Zealand legislation which was locked up in a private company website. As Nat puts it: “It had pretty crappy access and so I was in a sense liberating it from them. I was going to put them into a much better searchable web but a grumpy call from Wellington turned that off” 

Government Within Reach
Concurrent with the efforts at MED, the Department of Internal Affairs was working with Telecom NZ on the Government Within Reach project. The result was launched on 19 October 1995 - Government Blue Pages at the front of each telephone directory, providing a national index of services offered by government departments and agencies.
Two Ministers were involved in the launch – Warren Cooper, Minister of Internal Affairs and Maurice Williamson, Minister of Communications.

The index was also “being launched as an online service accessible through the Internet”

More than 1,000 listings of government services involving 195 state agencies were listed. Internet users could browse to the listings in the Blue Pages site - searching by text keywords or subject - to check which agency provided the service. They could then email their query to that agency. Only a handful of agencies were capable at this stage of replying electronically; messages to the rest were converted to fax. 

The project was sponsored by Neil Mackay, Deputy Secretary at Internal Affairs; Laurence Millar was the DIA project director, and the project was supported by an Advisory Board headed by former Treasury Secretary Graham Scott and including Social Welfare Director-General Margaret Bazely.  External stakeholder governance continued to be an important part of government website presence over the next 20 years. 

The project was reviewed by Paul Reynolds, an early member of the New Zealand digerati and sadly no longer with us.  He brought his characteristic Scottish acerbic point of view.

First hostile review of a government portal October 1995 
(not available online)

By 1997, with encouragement from the State Services Commission, the two initiatives had merged into one – titled New Zealand Government Online (NZGO) and provided at The governance arrangements were adjusted to include more active involvement of public service leadership. The NZGO Advisory Board was chaired by Len Cook, Government Statistician, other members included Margaret Bazley, Carol Stigley Chief Executive of local Government NZ, and Roger Blakeley, Secretary of Internal Affairs. NZGO was still operated by the Department of Internal Affairs. January 1997
The site was managed by Shane Middlemiss, who felt that the increasing importance of the Internet wasn’t understood at the time the GWR project started and the initial government webpages and blue pages web directory were launched. He wanted NZGO to deliver a more compelling portal experience, and developed a 3D style virtual lobby and counter with major public sector topics on a smorgasbord behind a customer advisor:  “We needed a universal customer advisor as the welcoming face of government so morphed a few hundred randomly-selected passport photos to create an average New Zealander's face.  Of course, the results were fuzzy, ugly rubbish so we ended up using the attractive face of one of the DIA IT support staff.  In the end we ran into probably one of the first accessibility clashes with the fixed width image map clashing, so it never made it to live use.”

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