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:

Beehive Wellington Government

Act Party leader David Seymour wants the New Zealand government to consider open source software.

In Act calls on government to support open source software at the NBR, he says the government needs to take a new approach when buying software procurement.

It can save the taxpayer large sums of money.

Seymour tells the NBR:

“A substantial number of civil servants could generate the same output using open source software and open document formats, instead of proprietary software like Microsoft Office.”

Act isn’t the only political party to call for government to consider using more open source software. It is also Green Party policy.

The key word is consider.

While there’s an argument for asking public servants use open source apps in place of Microsoft Office, that’s only part of the story.

Mandating open source

Mandating open source can be a straight-jacket. There are times when it is the right tool for a job, there are times when it is not. Far better to let decision makers nearer the coal face choose what people need. Pragmatism should trump dogma.

It’s not just Microsoft Office. There are government agencies using Google Documents. While licences are cheaper, the software isn’t free and, if anything, the data is more locked away than with Office.

If anything, rules should forbidding government departments buying software from companies not paying their fair share of tax.

Sure, many argue that Google isn’t breaking any laws, but nor would a government be breaking any laws if it chose to spend taxpayer funds with companies that are good citizens.

It’s one thing to insist public servants write memos using open source apps, but inflexible, expensive software isn’t restricted to desktop productivity apps.

Seymour thinks the government can save as much as $52 million “every four or five years” from dropping office. It’s likely at least that much money will also be tied up in proprietary databases.

Proprietary databases

Some proprietary databases are notoriously difficult to replace. The lock customers into long, expensive support contracts. At times some database licences resemble ransomware.

Writing at the New Zealand Open Source Society website Dave Lane has another perspective:

“While the NZOSS is gratified to see Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) being advocated by the Act Party (and the Greens have similarly advocated it for at least the past decade) we think that FOSS sells itself if the playing field is level. At present it is not.”

Good point. Formally mandating open standards for government apps would help level the playing field.

Let’s also level the software playing field in a wider sense. It’s not just open source versus proprietary, we also need to level the playing field for New Zealand tech companies allowing them to win more government contracts.

Keeping local technology firms out of such contracts would be unthinkable in most other countries.

Bowen_House_Beehive_ParliamentWhy don’t New Zealand companies win government tenders?” asks Ian Apperley at the IITP Techblog.

He writes about the institutional bias government departments and agencies have when it comes to buying technology.

More often than not they’ll choose an overseas supplier when there are perfectly good and better value alternatives available here in New Zealand.

Apperley writes this tale of woe:

Several years ago I was doing some work for a large government agency. Part of that work included setting up a tender for a major services contract, managing it through, then choosing and recommending a vendor to the CIO. What we didn’t know was that the CIO had already chosen the vendor.

The process to complete that RFP took nearly a year. We made a number of mistakes along the way. That included having only two IT people on the panel, the rest were accountants, contract managers and the CIO’s patsies. We were watched by an auditor from New Zealand Audit, a man of much credibility and experience.

As it transpired we chose two vendors to take through to the next level. The NZ Audit man signed off on the process. Then the CIO threw our findings out and went with the vendor they had already chosen. The final result was three years of pain for that agency because they chose the wrong organisation to support them.

The following story is based on a late night bar conversation years ago with the former managing director of a local software company. The events described here took place in the late 1980s. They echo Apperley’s story. Some of the precise details are hazy, it wouldn’t stand up in a court room, but the essence of this story is true.

World class software

The managing director’s company sold a clever and advanced specialist application. It wasn’t unique, but it was world-class. Parts of the technology are still in use today.

This company had been successful selling the application to business customers in New Zealand and elsewhere. By the standards of the time it was an export success. The software company clocked up a number of impressive overseas sales, including a few to government agencies in Australia and elsewhere.

Yet, it could not get through the door of Wellington government departments. Not even when its software closely matched the documented requirements.

Enter the multinational

The company had a reseller agreement with what was in those days still a large and well-known multinational computer vendor. That vendor sold the New Zealand-developed software under its own brand, with a different product name.

The local company pitched for a significant government contract. It’s bid fell at the first round.

Meanwhile the multinational, offering the same mix of hardware and software progressed to the next round and eventually won the government contract. The company’s pitch involved a trip to a customer site in the USA to see the system in action.

It was a win, of sorts, for the local software business. It managed to sell a decent licence, albeit with its prestigious big partner taking a hefty slice of the cake.

A bigger cake

The slice was big, but so was the cake. It turned out the multinational sold the same software package for a higher licence fee than the local company.

In the wash up it turns out the local software company did OK. But the New Zealand taxpayer did not. The US-based giant pocketed a hefty premium.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the managing director’s story was that the government deal involved a lucrative support contract. The multinational vendor didn’t have anyone in New Zealand with the necessary skills, so it farmed the support out to the software company.

communications plug

Tuanz — Telecommunications Users Association New Zealand — wants better consumer protection when the government revisits the Telecommunications Act.

Earlier this week Communications Minister Amy Adams published what she calls an “options paper”. This asks for feedback on the government’s proposed utility-style model for regulating fixed line telecommunications services after 2020.

The paper forms part of the government’s review of the 2001 Telecommunications Act. The Telecommunications Act 2001 review options paper is online at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment website.

One of the goals of the review is to bring telecommunications regulation more into line with utlities such as electricity lines and gas pipelines. Fresh mobile regulation is possible with potential provisions for infrastructure sharing.

In a press release Tuanz CEO Craig Young says:

“Tuanz has been arguing strongly for significantly stronger consumer disputes processes under the current mandatory code regime. However, the options released today leave this important function with the TCF.

“There may be no choice but to push for the alternative option of an independent dispute and complaint model to ensure that management of disputes is user-friendly, and focused on their rights.

This is important. The recent media stories about poor UFB installations highlight how powerless consumers feel when dealing with large, faceless telecommunications companies.

New Zealand’s access model with separation between network companies and retail service providers is good, but there is a danger of finger-pointing when problems occur. An independent referee would restore confidence.

“It is also disappointing that calls for a properly funded consumer advocacy group, and end-user focused research, have been ignored.

This has worked well in other counties. In the past Tuanz has done a lot of the consumer advocacy work, but that isn’t the organisation’s primary purpose and not what it’s member pay subscriptions for. Likewise the research.

With adequate funding, the organisation could do more work in both departments. Or it could play a role setting up a new separate, consumer-oriented body. It wouldn’t be expensive and would be cost-effective.

As Young goes on to say:

“The successful Australian model proves that contestable funds are an effective way of providing these important services and that leaving it up to the support from corporate entities is unrealistic.”

In the recent past government has looked to an industry levy to fund its rural broadband project and certain services for disabled users. While it would be better to ditch the levy — the telecommunications industry is unfairly targeted in this way — it wouldn’t hurt to set aside a small share of this money to fund an independent consumer-oriented body.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett is working on a writing project for Tuanz. 

No plan to prepare for digital age

Xero managing director Anna Curzon writes in for Stuff:

“It’s about time digital technology was recognised as an important topic of education because it’s crucial we prepare our next generation for tomorrow’s world.”

Someone could have written the same words any time in the last 40 years. It’s not a new idea. People said the same when I was at school in the 1970s. We ran similar comments when I edited The Dominion’s Computer Pages in the 1980s.

The idea is no more crucial today than it was before. Imagine how many Xeros, Vends and Orions we could have now if government listened then.

The difference is that we now have a vibrant home-grown technology sector to show the benefits technology-savvy citizens can bring.

Role models

We also now have successful role models; articulate industry leaders able to argue the case for technology. Curzon is one of them.

They run companies that bring in valuable export dollars. Their contribution to the economy is more reliable than the bust-boom cycles from, say, the dairy industry.

That alone should get them a hearing.

It’s chilling that after the effort industry leaders and others have put into explaining this, the Minister of Education and her officials ignored them.

There’s always a danger when industries push sector-based education agenda. It would be a disaster if, say, dairy leaders talked schools into adding dairy-farming to the curriculum.

Yet digital technology is hardly special pleading. It is as fundamental to the 21st century as reading, writing and arithmetic. These days digital technology is reading, writing and arithmetic.