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E-Government, Email, E-h What? 14 March 2002 Edition
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I recently dropped an email to the Hon Paul Swain, Minister of Communications, asking him whether the government plans to do something about the sorry state of DSL broadband services in this country.

I was surprised but perhaps not disappointed that I didn't immediately receive an automated "thank you for your email" type of response -- I'm not a great fan of these Net-equivalents of an answerphone anyway.

What surprised me most of all however, was the response I eventually got from the Office of Paul Swain.

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But first, let me remind you that the present government tells us that it is firmly committed to transitioning to the Net, many of the day-to-day interactions between government and citizens.

This move to e-Government is a sensible one. Why waste taxpayer funds and the valuable time of state servants by bothering them with relentless phone calls requesting the same old information when that same material can be put up on the Net and readily downloaded by anyone who needs it.

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To this end, the government are to be commended for the efforts they've made to date.

There's already a good amount of information and a wide range of forms available for download, something that makes life so much easier when you're applying for a passport, registering a new company, etc.

Given this commitment to using the Net as a method of cutting costs and boosting the efficiencies of government-citizen communications, I was therefore gobsmacked to receive the following response from Paul Swain's office:

"Thank you for your correspondence. Your email is with the Minister for his consideration.

Could you please provide a postal address for the Minister's reply. Thank you."

I had received similar responses a year or two ago and understood that some less IT-literate ministers, or those with a vested interest in keeping NZ Post profitable, might have taken a while to get to grips with this "internet" thing -- but why was the Minister of Communications still shunning email as a method of responding to correspondence?

Well it seems that it's all to do with signatures.

After I queried this seemingly paradoxical state of affairs, I was told that a response could be forwarded by email if required, however it's standard procedure for the Minister to sign all such correspondence and that "there has been a preference to send the signed letter".

Given that it's the taxpayer who ultimately pays for the paper, ink, envelope and other overheads involved in printing and delivering a snail-mail letter, I'd have thought that it would be quite reasonable to reply to an email, by email and save everyone a little time and money.

Why did I actually have to ask that the reply was emailed to me rather than posted?

Is it time for a change of practice in the corridors of power?

I think it would be sensible to respond to all communications in kind. If a message is received by post, then respond by post. If it's received by email then respond by email unless a request is made for a more formal written reply.

Experts all over the world concur that email is the single most popular and important service provided by the Internet. If the government and its ministers are going to fully embrace the concept of e-Government then they really need to be more proactive in making full use of this fast, efficient and effective tool.

Surely the Green Party ought to be concerned that the government is opting to burn hydrocarbons transporting lumps of ink-stained dead tree around the countryside when the same information can be delivered in digital form using little more than the power of a little water falling through a turbine somewhere.

Have your say.

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