COMMENTARY–E-business can do a lot for improving government and health services, but is Australia taking advantage?

A report in mid-2002 stated “Australian governments are leading the world in the application of online technologies”. I’m not sure I agree. In fact, I definitely disagree. In a fairly depressed IT market (and lacklustre economy), the government at its various levels should play a more active role to showcase the real potential and benefits from online services.

It would be appropriate at this stage to concede that just about every government department is online, and some are more advanced than others. The ATO has just about every tax document on its Web site, with a high level of Web enablement for individuals and businesses (although any organisation collecting over $160 billion in revenue would look at streamlining this through e-commerce). The federal and most state governments have a strategy for increasing the delivery of government services by e-mail.

In some cases, we are leading the world, such as the first secure on line criminal activity reporting system (I wasn’t aware you can report a crime online, but you can–at least in NSW).

However, much of the extensive content available through the various government sites is printed information translated to the Web. For example, just about all the public transport sites provide online versions of printed timetables, rather than taking technology one step further to generate a customised route and timetable based on where someone wants to go. To see what’s possible, try the “Plan a Trip” section on the Caltex Web site.

Similarly, I can’t pay my rates online. I can’t view my land valuation online (unless I pay a third party, which can access this information). Nor can I check the catalogue of my local library or apply for a local parking permit. Although I can now pay my parking fine online (the result of not having time to drive to my local council to apply for a parking permit), which is a relatively recent development.

An area where IT has not made significant inroads at an operational level is health. The government announced the formation National Health Information Standards Advisory Committee almost three years ago, recognising the role of technology in health care. IT can play much greater role, subject to privacy issues, in sharing patient data, once a consistent standard for electronic health records has been established. Hospitals have benefited from technology in sophisticated diagnosis and treatment tools, but still operate using traditional paper-based collection of clinical patient data.

The most significant area where we can lead the world in the use of technology is online voting. The Gartner Group suggests that Web-based voting will be in use in all 50 of the United States–at least on an experimental basis–by 2004. The federal voting fiasco in Florida has accelerated the call for a more efficient voting process in the US. Fortunately, Australia hasn’t had the same issues and has a less antiquated system–although recent reports indicate that due to computer glitches we won’t know the results for the upper house until some time in May, over two months after the election. Australia’s relatively high take-up of the Internet and large distances makes online voting especially attractive. There are issues such as security and authenticating voters to consider. On the other hand, I observed in the recent state elections that the current authentication process consisted of me a) stating my name, and then b) pointing it out on the list to a person of what appeared to be limited eyesight. No ID was requested. I doubt that achieving the same or greater security online will take us another decade.

We’re certainly not a third world nation when it comes to government e-services, but for an organisation eight times the size of Microsoft, there is still significant potential to show the rest of the world what technology can deliver. To encourage the government to invest in online services, I’ll take contributions to replace Senator Alston’s famous “borrowed” plasma-screen TV with a broadband Internet terminal for his home.

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