Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member Ben Kepes is a regular opinion contributor.

OPINION: I’m a child of the 80s who grew up watching the excellent British comedies Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.

They’re two excellent series and well worth watching.

For those who haven’t seen them the show’s hero, Jim Hacker, is a new government minister, in the case of the initial series, and prime minister, in the subsequent follow up, who naively thinks he can make decisions and have them enacted by his loyal civil service.

What sort of politician thinks she or he can actually make changes, right?

Without giving a spoiler away, the truth is very different to Hacker’s hope and, at every turn, he is thwarted by his loyal (or not so much) servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, a man who has no doubt whatsoever that the role of the civil service is to run the country and the role of politicians is to kiss babies and open museums.

Appleby uses every tool he possesses to ensure that the Government does exactly what he, and the broader civil service, wish them to.

It’s a blast from the past and a reflection of days gone by when there was far less transparency around Government and the public service, and when civil service jobs were an absolute sinecure.

Here in New Zealand, we had our own comedy series focusing on the civil service. Gliding On was another story showcasing just how little work the civil service actually did. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Wellington, my recollection is of grey civil servants (who, as I recall not only wore dull grey suits but had an extensive dull grey pallor) scurrying around the various ministries.

Of course with the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, we’ve utterly changed the model of the public sector here in New Zealand.

Today public sector chief executives are highly-paid individuals who are as good as their private-sector peers at focusing on deliverables, metrics performance and the like. It’s almost like the public sector feels it needs to be even more commercially focused than the private sector.

I was thinking about this new-look public sector after I received a call from a customer survey company asking to talk to me about my recent interaction with the Department of Internal Affairs.

I’ve had reason to engage with the website of DIA of late as I needed to acquire a new passport, Covid having ensured that I was happily unaware that my passport expired over a year ago. I also needed a new birth certificate for myself and a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Let me say that I was ecstatic at the ease of use of the website. I simply needed to fill out an online form, upload a digital photo where applicable, pay my fee, and I was done. No paper forms, no queueing in lines at a DIA office, no officious bureaucrat to argue with.

While there were no doubt some deleterious impacts from the public sector reforms, for the most part, they have resulted in better service for all.

But, let’s face it. The DIA isn’t a fast-food outlet. I don’t exactly have a lot of choices when it comes to applying for these sorts of documents. If I want a passport, the Department of Internal Affairs is my only option.

If I’m looking for dinner, I have a vast choice of options for fast food that will, at the least give me clogged arteries and likely a bit of diabetes to boot. McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut, plus a gazillion others, are all happy to please. But for passports, not so much.

This is where I was a little bit weirded out by the DIA survey.

I totally get it that the DIA wants to assess how well its online tools are meeting the needs of the market and I concede that I nominally had some choice with my passport – do it online, or go visit a DIA office. But the research company, which is a private-sector contractor, showed about as much flexibility as I would have expected from the public sector prior to the reforms.

“What interaction did you have with the DIA?” they asked me. To which I replied that I had sought a new passport, birth and death certificate. “Sorry, I can only talk to you about one interaction. The survey won’t let me do more.”

And so on. From the outset, I explained that I applied for my forms online and had no need to take advantage of DIA’s impressive multitude of support options – phone, email, chatbot, personally delivered civil servant in the comfort of your own home (I might have dreamed up that last one).

So to answer the rigid survey structure at least half a dozen times throughout the conversation to reiterate the fact that “I did it all online without assistance” seemed to labour the point a bit. I don’t really understand why, for a transaction with literally no user options, a customer survey is even warranted.

Honestly, it’s not a big deal, and we should be super impressed that a government department actually cares about customer service and user experience. We should celebrate the fact that we can order a new passport, entirely with an online process.

But maybe that’s all we need and DIA doesn’t need to spend resource asking us questions about our user experience?

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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