Politicians are rarely good with technology. Nothing illustrates this better than the 2011 parliamentary debate over the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act.
People spoke a lot of nonsense at the time. The NBR described the debate as loopy. That was kind. It was obvious the MPs had no idea what they were talking about.
The otherwise obscure New Plymouth MP Jonathan Young took the madness to a higher level. He made headlines speaking in an empty parliament chamber saying:
“…The computer system called Skynet that ruled the world. It’s like the internet today.”
Most of us had no idea what Skynet is. Yet we all knew Young was out of touch with the real world when he spoke.
Young had his 15 minutes of fame as people mocked him for failing to understand the internet.
Politicians don’t get IT
To be fair to Young, he isn’t the only politician who doesn’t understand technology. Few do. Many say embarrassing things. Some say foolish or harmful things.
Wiser heads know to say nothing or very little. It’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you may be ignorant than to open it and confirm their fears.
It seems the higher you get in the pecking order, the less a politician knows. Technology know-how has never been a path to high office. It may be an obstacle.
At best politicians mouth empty platitudes about technology. They often acknowledge it is often a good thing without saying anything specific. It’s like motherhood and apple pie.
You will hear our politicians sing the praises of entrepreneurs. While they are positive about technology investment, that’s because they are in favour of any investment.
And they know technology investment sounds good to voters.
Our politicians might, if pushed, be able to talk about the importance of teaching children about science and technology. Yet, for the most part, that’s about as far as things go.
Not only do politicians not understand specifics about science and technology, they often fail to grasp the importance of underlying ideas and concepts.
Ask them about, say, the value of scientific peer review, the nature of scientific enquiry or the difference between proprietary or open source software and most of the time you’ll get blank looks.
Advice for policymakers
So it makes sense to have someone who can move in their circles to advise policymakers. Communications Minister Clare Curran moved fast to establish the role. It may have been in the manifesto for both parties by the time of the election, but Curran pushed this for a while and wasted no time making it happen.
Curran says the chief technology officer will be accountable to the prime minister and to herself. She says the person will provide independent expert advice to ministers and senior leaders on digital issues.
“The chief technology officer will be responsible for preparing and overseeing a national digital architecture, or roadmap, for the next five to ten years”.
The job has to go to someone capable of speaking to the cabinet and committee members in language they can understand without condescending.
New Zealand already has many public servants and others operating at the highest levels who can advise policymakers on these matters. They often do. Much of the time their advice is first class.
Yet advisors tend to operate in silos, often with a narrow sectorial focus. At times their advice can conflict with their peers operating in other fields.
Some of the key advice going to politicians comes from well-funded lobby groups, not independent experts.
The science advisers who go into bat for the agriculture sector might have a different view of, say, wheat or sugar to those advisers working in public health.
Technology advice in the eye of the beholder
Similar reasoning applies to technology. Take public cloud computing. An advisor focused on productivity and reducing cost might be all for government storing sensitive data overseas on an Amazon server. An advisor looking after personal security and privacy might offer a different opinion.
Depending on where you sit, the idea of, say, New Zealand data sovereignty might be a useful way to keep people safe or it could be a brake on innovation. Someone needs to unpick these issues for our leaders.
There are big strategic decisions where different government departments and competing interests want to pull in different directions. Take the question of how government should engage with organisations like Google or Facebook? You’ll get diametric views depending on who you talk to.
Big picture view
A chief technology officer may not be the best person to make day-to-day decisions on such matters, but they can set the ground rules and explain the issues to policymakers.
Someone needs to tell ministers it can be a bad idea in general, say, for their departments to communicate with citizens by Facebook.
This kind of decision should not be left to gut-feel reckons. Too many important decisions of this nature are being made by people who don’t necessarily grasp all the basics.
Think back once more to 2011 and the Copyright Amendment Act. At the time paid online services for copyrighted material were emerging as alternatives to piracy. It was clear then that these emerging services at least had the potential to neuter the threat of piracy.
Either no-one told our leaders, or, more likely, no-one who they would listen to was prepared to tell them. Having someone in the Beehive who could talk through the issues would be a good start.
Likewise, someone needs to talk to our leaders about the implications of increased automation, artificial intelligence and so on for employment. Then there’s blockchain and the internet of things or the government investment in fixed-line broadband potentially being undermined by wireless network operators. We could go on listing important technology areas that may need legislative attention.
Chief technology officer no panacea
Having a chief technology officer is not a panacea. It is no good if someone claims the crown, then does little with it. The person chosen needs to be active. At the same time, we really don’t need someone who comes to the role with a predetermined agenda. It’s not a job for someone who is partisan.
And that’s a big danger. Even the fairest-minded expert can be open to capture by special interest groups. Big technology companies are already able to throw millions of dollars into wooing, cajoling and persuading politicians, putting one person in charge of the category could make their task so much easier.
We don’t want a chief technology officer who kow-tows to global technology giants. Yet at the same time, we do not want one who is openly and unreasonably hostile towards them or some of them. We need a sceptic, not a cynic.
If there is an over-arching objective for a national chief technology officer, it would be to insert more science, engineering or technical thinking into government. There is precious little.
Few politicians or senior public servants have any science education beyond school and many dropped the subject long before leaving high school. While there’s nothing wrong with not having a technology background, there is clearly too little knowledge among our present leaders. It might help if the better funded political parties also hired technology advisors to help them frame policy.
The other danger is that the appointee is brilliant with a full grasp of the complexities, but is unable to articulate key ideas in a simple enough fashion for ordinary mortals to understand. Remember, our political leaders have, a best a below average grasp of technology, even if they are brilliant lawyers or business leaders.
The chief technology officer will also need to be able to talk in the language that ordinary citizens can understand. At least part of their job will be to explain to the rest of us what is going on with policy. It’s a big job. It needs a special person.