MP Paul Fletcher believes there's more the government can do online. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Over the past 20 years businesses in many different sectors have seen ways to use the internet to serve their customers better.
If you want to book an airline ticket or a hotel, you can do it online – and instantly compare prices across multiple providers. If you are looking for a new house or a new job, the search process is vastly quicker and more informative than in pre-internet days.
Compared with the private sector, government has not done such a good job in using the internet to transform the way it serves citizens.
There's been a bit of talk – such as the paper on Government 2.0 issued by former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner in 2009.
There are signs of progress in some areas. The Australian Tax Office says more than 2.6 million Australians lodged their tax return online last year.
But we are a long way from seeing a "one-click" mentality in government.
Imagine for example if you could update your address once when you moved – and it would update your records with every government department at state and federal level, from the Tax Office to Medicare to state departments responsible for your car registration and your driver's licence.
Imagine if you could complete a 100 point ID check in person once at a bank or post office – and this linked to a secure online identity that you could use for multiple purposes, allowing you for example to open a new bank account online.
Imagine if your existing online identity with your bank – already verified to the 100 point standard – could be used as your identity for interacting with government?
In Canada, customers of three major banks can use their bank authentication credentials to access online services from the Canadian government.
In New Zealand, the igovt logon service lets you use the same logon details to access online services from many different government departments – including both the national government and Auckland and Wellington city councils.
The service is being expanded following the passing of the Electronic Identity Verification Act in December 2012. This will let New Zealanders use their electronic identity with multiple government agencies – rather than having to provide paper documents.
There are also plans for private sector organisations like banks and insurance companies to accept these credentials.
In Australia we have talked about these things for a while, with the Department of Finance releasing the National e-Authentication Framework in 2009.
But the user experience does not match the rhetoric.
If you go to the www.australia.gov.au portal there is a tab marked "change of address", which directs you to a list, by state, of agencies you might need to inform. In several cases, you are asked to print out a form and fill it in.
While you can lodge your tax return online, if you want to notify the Tax Office of your change of address, its website directs you to their call centre.
And while the Tax Office might know who you are, that won't help you establish your identity when you want to get a passport.
One of the core functions of government is to verify and authenticate the identity of citizens and residents. Governments have always done this - from registering births, deaths and marriages and issuing passports to registering the identity of the owner of houses or cars. These processes could be done much more efficiently – delivering powerful user benefits.
There are several reasons why we have not captured this potential.
One is the difficulty of co-ordinating not just among different government departments but among different levels of government – a much greater challenge in Australia than in New Zealand.
Another is privacy concerns, which derailed the Hawke government's attempt to introduce the Australia Card in the '80s.
But if an electronic identity service were offered as a choice, people would only choose to take it up if they saw benefits in doing so.
The case for the Australia Card was all about the benefits to government – for example, improving tax compliance. That's the wrong perspective to start from.
Government should take a leaf out of the private sector's book and approach this question from the opposite perspective: how can we use the internet to serve our customers (that is, citizens and residents) better?
With millions of Australians having social media accounts, and wide acceptance of the user benefits of transacting online, it's time for government to get serious about using the internet to deliver better services.
Paul Fletcher is a Coalition MP and former Optus executive. He serves on the Joint Select Committee on the NBN and is the author of Wired Brown Land, a book on broadband and telecommunications.
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