Following the Prime Minister’s revelation that he’s been talking to Google officials about changes to our public service, the Kapiti Independent asked the Public Service Association (PSA) for their take on what could be a big threat to civil servants’ jobs.
Here’s the response from Brenda Pilott, PSA National Secretary.By Brenda Pilott
Does the government have any plan for the public sector beyond indiscriminate cuts in staff and services? That’s the question The PSA has been asking for the last three years. The plan we were told was to cut back office jobs and beef up frontline ones to provide the public with a better service.
Now that over 5000 jobs have been gone, a new plan has emerged – reduce frontline services and replace them with call centres and online interaction.
According to Prime Minister John Key, this is just what the public want – being able, his example, to apply for a passport with a smart phone (in fact no country in the world permits you to apply for a passport by smart phone). To realise his government’s vision of souped-up e-government he has enlisted the help of internet giant Google.
The stated aims of this proposed shift to virtual government is to cuts costs and increase efficiency, objectives that few would argue with.
Is this what the public really wants?’
Apart from the question “is it really what the public wants?”, there is the real issue of whether it would achieve its objectives of cutting costs and improving efficiency. Government IT projects – with their hardware, software, internet connectivity and IT staff costs – are massively expensive. The new computer system for Inland Revenue alone is estimated to cost in excess of $1 billion.
Even when such a system is up and running, there is still the need to maintain face-to-face, phone and postal services for the large sections of the population who have no access to technology or don’t know how to use it. It is this group who are among the most frequent users of government services.
A generation to get a pay-off
It could be a generation before such a massive investment would pay dividends in lower costs and more efficient government services. Given the current need to reduce government expenditure, a cost-benefit analysis of a massive new e-government initiative may not stack up. In the UK, for example, local government invested 3.90 billion pounds in technology and made savings of just 0.97 billion pounds.
Nor can it be hoped that a more cost effective and efficient e-government will necessarily have a spin-off by improving the economy. In a 2010 report comparing the digitisation of public services in Europe, Ireland was the top performer closely followed by Portugal. Both countries have huge public debts and are among the worst performing economies in Europe.
E- government will undoubtedly play a bigger part in the future, but there will always a role for skilled staff. The most efficient and effective way to deal with complex issues will always be face to face contact with a real person.
Meeting with PM requested
And in a new move, the PSA has requested an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss his plans for the future of the public service.
Decisions on how to improve public services must involve those who receive them as well as those who deliver them and their unions – not just Google executives. Further use of technology within the public service must enhance services rather than squeeze departments’ capacity to deliver them.