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:

Overseas tech skillsOverseas readers wanted to know how New Zealand is filling its tech industry vacancies. Here is my story published earlier this year in London-based Computer Weekly. 

Wellington is as far as you can fly from Heathrow before you start coming back. New Zealand’s capital is almost 19,000km and at least 24 hours away. The city is small by European standards, with only 200,000 people calling it home.

And yet Wellington is a regional technology hub. It is the nation’s biggest technology user and the government is based there. Wellington is also home to Weta Workshop, established by director Peter Jackson to create computer graphics for The Lord of the Rings movies. It is where New Zealand technology entrepreneur Rod Drury began Xero, the small business accounting software-as-a-service market leader. Dozens of small tech startups inhabit buildings all over the small South Pacific city.

Read more in New Zealand calls for tech specialists at Computer Weekly

Massey University Albany Auckland

Tomorrow night I’m chairing an interactive panel discussion on the skills challenge facing New Zealand technology companies. It’s part of Massey University’s ecentre cloud series.  The session starts at 5:30 at the Sir Neil Waters Building, Massey University Albany.

Innovative companies depend on talented knowledge workers. They are in short supply everywhere, New Zealand is no different from other western nations. Yet with our innovators going through a golden age, the problem is particularly acute now.

This certainly is a golden age for New Zealand innovators. A whole raft of entrepreneurial companies are taking leading edge technology products and services to the world. We’ve always had innovators, but Xero’s global success has inspired others to shoot for bigger goals. Vend, the Wynyard Group, E-Road and PowerbyProxi are some of the best known.

For every high-profile innovator that you’ve read about in the business pages there are dozens of smaller companies queueing up behind.

It’s exciting times.  For the first time in history we are creating a new wave of exactly the kind of high growth technology companies our economy needs to lift us from relying on producing commodities. Exciting times, but also worrying times because fewer students are signing up for courses in the subjects that feed these industries:  science, technology, engineering and maths. It’s not just at the university level, school students are turning their backs on these subjects.

We can shake our heads, complain and make loud noises about this problem — that’s an understandable response. But the centre cloud discussion panel is going to look for answers. The plan is for people to come away from the session with a better idea of the shape of the problem and some positive ideas about how to fix it.

Linkedin’s ‘Jobs you may be interested in’ are incredibly inappropriate given my profile and experience. Is is this bad for everyone? I suspect someone is taking the piss suggesting urologist.
Linkedin's 'Jobs you may be interested in' are incredibly inappropriate given my profile and experience. Is is this bad for everyone?
Linkedin’s ‘Jobs you may be interested in’ are incredibly inappropriate given my profile and experience. Is is this bad for everyone? I suspect someone is taking the piss suggesting urologist.

Loading logs at Gisborne
Loading logs at Gisborne

Three days ago I watched a series of lorries barrel through Gisborne carrying unprocessed logs to the port where they were loaded on to a ship.

That wood is heading overseas. Workers in another country will add value.

New Zealand unlocked just a small part of the wealth tied up in those logs.

We ate in The Works, a restaurant housed in an old Gisborne port building. There chefs took locally produced raw materials like fish, meat and vegetables then added value by turning them into $30 plates of food. We sipped Gisborne Chardonnay – a few cents worth of grapes turned into $40 bottles of wine.

At the time I thought how the economy would be boosted if New Zealand could move more of its economy higher up the value chain.

That’s what Callaghan Innovation could do. If the project succeeds, it won’t just move food, agriculture and wood processing up the value chain, it will help our industries capture the crowning heights. It’ll make us richer as a nation.

There’s a danger it could just become another top-heavy bureaucracy acting to widen the gap between innovators and the market. What we don’t need it more paperwork or more red tape. We certainly don’t need officials meddling at the sharp end of the economy.

Let’s hope CI can broker partnerships between innovators and industry. I’d like to see the Callaghan Innovation get early runs on the board to prove its worth.