Clare Curran, Labour communications spokesperson
Communications Minister Clare Curran moved fast to establish the CTO position.

Politicians are rarely good with technology. Nothing illustrates this better than the 2011 parliamentary debate over the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act.

A lot of nonsense was spoken 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 he was mocked 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.

Praise be

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. Hat’s off to Communications Minister Clare Curran for moving 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 has 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.

She says:

“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 a language they can understand without being 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 an entirely different opinion.

Depending on where you sit, the idea of, say, 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.

Communications skills

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.

Also on:

Tuanz CEO Paul Brislen asks Will Chorus go for the nuclear option?

His story says if the company sticks to the letter of the law, copper internet connections could slow to a crawl.

He has a point. Yet a painful, slow internet is not the worst thing that could happen.

Chorus owns the most important parts of the national telecommunications infrastructure. It owns and runs the copper network, cabinets and some, not all, telephone exchanges. Chorus also owns some national transport fibre. It is building most of the UFB fibre broadband network.

The company is ultimately responsible for around 1.8 million phone lines. Or, as Chorus’s 2012 annual report points out, it supplies about 90 percent of New Zealand fixed line connections.

These networks are national, strategic assets. They are as important to our economy as our roads, power lines and our water supply.

We need a healthy, profitable Chorus

Ask yourself: “What would happen if Chorus went bust tomorrow?”

Suppose the power companies stopped supplying electricity to the company’s networks, repair crews stopped fixing faults, engineers stopped managing traffic and so on.

It wouldn’t take long for the economy to grind to a halt.

Is this a ridiculous idea? Last year it was unthinkable. A few months ago it seemed unlikely.

In September Prime Minister John Key entered the debate and told us otherwise.

While Key may have been scaremongering or just being a drama queen, subsequent events have done little to repair investor confidence in the company. And the political risk to the government climbed.

Last week’s report from Ernst & Young suggests the company is at risk of not meeting its contractual commitments.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before anyone turns off the lights. No-one is panicking yet. But keep in mind just how bad things could get if everything goes pear-shaped at Chorus.

Remember all the talk two or three years ago about how everyone would love broadband? At the time, the industry churned out marketing material gushing about a new technology capable of delivering a whole raft of new and exciting applications that would radically change the way small companies operated.

In many respects broadband has lived up to its promise, but things didn’t quite work out service providers planned.

On the one hand, they actually underestimated small businesses’ appetite for fast Internet. On the other hand, while broadband had changed the way companies operate, they’ve not been as quick to adopt new applications.

Pacific Internet managing director Dennis Muscat says that by July of this year 52 percent or slightly more than half of all Internet-connected companies in Australia had broadband access. Two years ago the number was around 20 percent.

These numbers come from research conducted for Pacific Internet by ACNielsen Consult and published in the company’s Broadband Barometer.

Muscat, who heads the local operation of a regional telecommunications service provider, says many small businesses have purchased residential broadband packages aimed primarily at consumers. This makes sense because many smaller companies operate directly from people’s homes.

Jason Juma-Ross, principal analyst with AMR Interactive says that for small businesses the practical reality of broadband Internet is not that it enables new applications such as video conferencing or voice over IP, but that it allows users to do more of the things they did with dial-up. He says that for many users the always-on nature of broadband is possibly more important than its speed.

Muscat echoes this. He says, “They’re doing much the same as before, but with more intensity.” That means sending and receiving more email, increasing the amount of web browsing for information and doing more with their own web sites. At the same time, companies with broadband links are far more likely to use Internet banking and pay their bills online.

For example, Muscat says people are now sending large complex documents via email that they might have previously couriered or sent via fax. “Broadband increases efficiency and reduces costs. At the end of the day these are what small businesses want from any technology.”

One area that has changed dramatically is remote working. Companies that operate at multiple locations or who employ out-of-town teleworking staff can now give their remote users full, real-time access to internal computer systems.

Muscat says this has had a huge impact on some industries. “In the past if, say, a travel company employee got an out of hours call from a customer who needed to change his itinerary, that employee would have to physically go to the office in order to change the booking. Now they can take the call at home and log on to the travel systems.”

For now, more glamorous broadband applications such as videoconferencing remain well outside the business mainstream. This is despite the increased reluctance for long-distance travel now that airports have additional security procedures.

Likewise, there’s been no rush to voice over IP technology, which allows businesses to cut telephone toll budgets by enabling calls over the Internet. And software companies that have repackaged their applications as pay per use online services are still not getting much traction in the small business sector.

One reason for the slow move to new applications is that companies don’t necessarily see them as relevant. For example, videoconferencing adds little value for many companies, who could just as well get by with ordinary telephone calls.

But there another factor that can be sheeted back to Muscat’s observation about Australian small business using broadband products and services designed for residential customers. These consumer offerings tend to be significantly cheaper, but they are also generally much slower than business services – in most overseas markets anything less than 1.5 Mbps isn’t regarded as true broadband and certainly not adequate for advanced applications involving video or voice.

Moreover, residential broadband doesn’t offer the same service guarantees as commercial products. In other words, it’s not generally as reliable as business-class broadband and that extra consistency is essential for more sophisticated applications.

So what broadband applications are small businesses using? Muscat says that for the moment tools that increase data integrity dominate the market. He says there’s a huge demand for managed firewalls, spam filters, content filtering and other security products and services. “They’re concerned about viruses and hackers and being flooded with spam”.

Muscat says that as they gain experience and confidence with the technology, companies will move beyond what he describes as online hygiene factors and seek a higher grade of data network. “Small businesses know they have to deal with these issues before they can move on to the highfaluting applications.”

First published in The Australian Financial Review 2004