Let’s get digital

The internet has changed how we find and access information. Believe it or not, there’s more than just cat pictures and memes out there.

These days we all want and expect to be able to access information and services digitally. This includes the services that the public sector delivers. Whether it’s renewing a passport, applying for a fresh water fishing licence or, in my case, checking to see how much I still owe on my student loan, we want to be able to do it all online, when and wherever it suits us.

The Office of the Auditor-General has been looking at how three public sector organisations provide digital access to information and services to the public. We looked at Greater Wellington Regional Council’s real-time passenger information system, the National Library’s online services, and the Quotable Value Limited QV homeguide application (app).The findings from all three can be found in our recently published report Digital access to information and services: Learning from examples.

The National Library: days of future past

The National Library is home to a staggering amount of information and resources, from books, newspapers, and images. Unsurprisingly, it’s a big job not only looking after all of this information but also making it more widely available to members of the public, including students and researchers.

In the past, the only way to find out what was in the Library’s collections would be to physically visit the Library and pore over a card catalogue. You can still do that, but these days you can also search the Library’s entire collection on its website. In fact, the Library has been putting information and services online as early as the 1980s – well before we expected things to be available 24/7 on the internet. This includes the digitisation of the Library’s collections, such as images and historical papers.

When we looked at how the Library is making its collections more available online, we found that the complexities and challenges of digitising information and providing digital information and services need to be well understood and managed. It can be easy to underestimate the time and intensive work required. To digitise a document there are four phases: scope, plan, process, and delivery. The four phases are made up of 13 stages and 43 detailed steps. Once a document has been digitised, it still needs to be upgraded and changed as the software to access the document changes with time. This can present a challenge (and risk) with version control.

We also found that there is an opportunity to learn more about how people use and reuse digital information and the benefits produced. This will allow public entities to tailor their digital services to people’s needs and encourage greater use and reuse of digital information.

Real-time information boards: the here and now

Greater Wellington Regional Council manages Wellington’s public transport network under the brand name Metlink. To encourage the use of public transport, it introduced a range of real-time information products to improve perceptions about the reliability of public transport. This includes the Metlink website, a dedicated smartphone app, and information boards at bus stops that tell passengers when to expect their bus.

We found that anticipating future needs means that governors and managers will need to identify emerging technologies and customer expectations that could affect their business. For example, when the Council started its project to create a smartphone app in 2007, smartphones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. Governors and managers need to keep up with changes in technology and consider how they affect the way that information, business processes, organisational culture, and behaviour are managed. The need to think about and plan for the future is ongoing because technology is constantly changing, and with these changes there will be both new opportunities and new risks.

We also found that ensuring that digital information is available to third parties could improve people’s access to services and lead to new ways to use the information.

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QV homeguide app: a one-stop shop

QV provides rating and valuation services to central and local government, the public, and financial providers. You can find out when a property has been sold, its capital value, and whether or not building consents have been issued for it, among other things.

If you’re looking to a buy a house or property, there’s a lot of research you might want to do to help you with your decision-making. This means that you might have to ask a number of different organisations for information about a single property.

QV’s homeguide app provides information from multiple sources in one app so people don’t have to go to all of those sources individually. The app collects this information from councils, a national property database, and Land Information New Zealand. This is another useful way that organisations can provide services to the public – by giving them a convenient one-stop shop for all their information needs.

We found that the homeguide app is a great place to access information from multiple sources in one location. However, we did find that the app didn’t meet all of the government guidelines for accessibility and usability. It’s important that organisations offering digital services meet the diverse needs of all people. This includes taking into consideration any disabilities – such as visual impairments – or that might hinder a person’s ability to access or used digital content.

Learn more…

Our report is part of our information work programme theme, which has also included reports about Auckland Council’s online services and patient portals. We’re currently working on a reflections report that will bring together findings and observations from our information work programme theme. Sign up to our subscribers list to be informed when this and other reports are published.