NZBN: unlocking Government for business

mike o'donnell MOD
mike o'donnell MOD

My niece had her 21st birthday recently in Timaru. My family is pretty small and she's a bit of a rock star so we made a trip down to my old hometown, the metropolis once optimistically marketed as "the Riviera of the South".

It's been a long time since I'd been to a 21st and my recollection of such events is not flash. Typically they involved mini-tankers of sugary lager, yard glasses and embarrassing speeches. Plus an occasional fist fight afterwards. Fortunately times have changed.

In this case it consisted of a great bunch of young people, a young lady who hosted people like a seasoned maitre'd and a sparkling jazz group made up of her varsity mates. Not a yard glass in sight. A great night, and a great celebration.

Last week I attended a celebration of a different sort, when the Government launched the New Zealand Business Number (NZBN) at the HQ of sharemarket darling, Xero. The NZBN is a core plank in the Government's better public services for business owners. More formally framed up as Government Policy Result 9, it's one of 10 public service result areas the Government committed to several years ago.

The idea behind a single business number is simple. Businesses provide the government with their information once, and this is then shared whenever they use the number with the public sector's various agencies. It should make dealings quicker and easier.

The number will become the key identifier that a business needs to provide to agencies for support or easier-than-usual compliance. In time, it may replace or supplement IRD or ACC numbers, thought that's unlikely in the short term.

For any person who has experienced the frustration that comes with filling in the same information across countless different Government forms this is good news. Likewise if you've had to front up with your Companies Office certificate to prove you are who you say you are, this should be welcome relief.

The longer term extension is that businesses will no longer require individual accounts with each agency, their details will be updated automatically and the NZBN will be able to be used for ecommerce - both business-to-business as well as business-to-government. Think of it kind of like a Real Me identity, but not as diabolically hard to set up.

Once it's clear this isn't big brother trying to crawl up your armpit with a microscope, it becomes apparent it's not a bad idea. It's something that businesses, particularly small businesses, have been lobbying towards for years. And it's already happened, well at least for registered companies allocated NZBNs back in December. Now the government is looking at rolling them out further, and it's kicking off a four-week consultation period.

To me there are three big issues that bubble up out of this.

First, only half the businesses in New Zealand are structured as companies. The other half are made up mainly of sole traders (19%), trusts (15%) and partnerships (12%). MBIE has simply allocated NZBNs to companies through the Companies Office (which they operate), but they have no sway over the others.

So the question is: how do they convince them of the benefits?

And if you've ever tried to convince a plumber or a farmer that the state is there to help, you'll know this is no easy job.

Second, to date the focus is all around the government-to-business relationship. The NZBN also opens the door to easier B2B relationships, and much more efficient processing and transactional services.

Enabled well, this can unlock a truckload more growth. The question is how to accelerate the B2B use most effectively?

However the third and biggest challenge is how the Government makes good on the implicit promise of the NZBN.

They need to have the services ready to go and the bulk of these need to be online to encourage small businesses to apply for, and use their number. And at the moment - as you will know if you have tried to interact with the likes of IRD, ACC or NZTA - they are some way from having a compelling online offering.

The other part about old-fashioned 21st birthdays in Timaru was being presented with a giant silver painted key; supposedly to symbolise that the person now had the key to their future and the freedom to open doors. But in a practical sense it was pretty much useless, it didn't open the door to anything. Hopefully the new NZBN won't be the same.

In theory the NZBN will be the key to unlocking government for business, but it will miss the mark if agile delivery isn't home once the door has been opened.

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Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director and Ecommerce manager. His Twitter handle is @modsta and it's been a long time since he was 21. Disclosure of interest: MOD sits on MBIE's Business Insight Board.