Letter from New Zealand: How we've taken inspiration from the UK's digital public services

New Zealand's civil service believes that their central government needs one single web portal. Their digital team write about how they’ve taken inspiration from gov.uk.

By Civil Service World

30 Aug 2013

In New Zealand, public sector websites reflect organisational structures and often use jargon or terms only meaningful to staff. Agencies offer multiple websites to provide information about roles, services, governance, accountability and programmes. This paradigm makes it difficult for users to find information and services, and it makes for an inefficient spend for government. Changing this is not as simple as building yet another website.

The govt.nz project represents the first transformational change in how government delivers services. It takes a new approach to design and development which borrows from the user-centred, agile, iterative development techniques implemented successfully in the private sector to deliver effective online products that customers use. The project applies those techniques to government information delivery online.

In July 2013, the government launched a new ICT Strategy and Action Plan which states, “expectations are changing and government has to change to meet these expectations. The future of government ICT is not just about technology. It is also about how the government uses information and technology to deliver better services” .

The govt.nz project aligns with this approach. Our scope is to redevelop newzealand.govt.nz, which doesn’t meet user needs and has duplicate content that is not easily discoverable.

To start, we looked at what other governments were doing online. We found good ideas but didn’t know what would work in New Zealand. So we asked people what they thought. We ran focus groups and user testing to find out how people wanted government information online.

Our approach

We decided to:
1. base decisions on user needs
2. build an evidence base
3. start small and iterate.

We started with an alpha site. This was a wire-frame with basic content that we could test with users to see if our ideas worked.

We’ve recently launched our beta site, beta.govt.nz, which is being used to gather feedback and for additional testing.

Content is grouped in 18 information hubs with labels like ‘driving and transport’ and ‘travel and immigration’. Nothing was grouped by agency; it’s not how people think.

The beta’s content is around common tasks which link out to government sites. Agencies will fact check the content before the site goes into production in 2014.

We’re also open and transparent about what we’re doing. We’ve been using our Web Toolkit, to share our progress on this and related projects.

Inspired by gov.uk

When we started this project in 2012, the gov.uk site had just been launched. We think this site is beautiful, ground-breaking and sets the benchmark for what a government website can be.

Since the UK has made all of their code open source, we adapted the gov.uk front-end templates - the basic design elements of the site - rather than starting from scratch. Time saved. Money saved. Resources saved. We like that.

One of the great things the UK did was to use ‘responsive design’ so we didn’t have to build a separate mobile site: the code responds to the device.

What’s different?

The govt.nz project team is small, only 12-16 people at any time, but we use an agile approach and are co-located, which have been big advantages. This has allowed the developers, content editors, the information architect and the product owner to have a continuous dialogue about the work.

Early on we adopted a ‘soft sell’ approach to explain the benefits to agencies about the redevelopment. We shared what we learned as we learned it, and brought our stakeholders along with us.

Ultimately, the project team are the best advocates:

• Product owner Jared Gulian has given presentations to web communities, CIOs, numerous governance groups and even to the Bahrain International eGovernment Forum.

• Information architect Nathan Wall has a strong presence in several Yammer groups and other social media.

• Team manager Laura Sommer carries our message to a plethora of discussions.

• The content editors have briefed their counterparts at other agencies.


We’ve seen early benefits from our iterative process: we’re getting feedback and making changes quickly, which means a better product for our users.

We’ve published our design principles and content style guide so that users can hold us accountable. If content doesn’t meet these standards, tell us and we’ll fix it.

When govt.nz goes live next year, users will get a more consistent experience, obvious starting points, and easy-to-understand, plain English content – optimised for search engines – that is accessible on any device.

For government, the online channel will be managed in more consistent way; we’ll be better prepared and positioned to respond when things go wrong; and, there’ll be increased opportunities for sharing knowledge and expertise.

Any feedback? Please contact:

Susan Carchedi
Senior Advisor Engagement
Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua
Direct Dial: +64 4 474 3081

See also: Opinion: Dr Jonathan Coleman MP: Reform in New Zealand

CSW's feature on international models of public service reform

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