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CTO role enters final straight

Paul Brislen, Editor. 20 June 2018, 7:34 am

The government's search for its Chief Technology Officer is back on and the role should be filled by August, says Minister for Communications and IT, Clare Curran.

The first round of applicants, around 60 in total, was rejected earlier in the year leading to much consternation among the chattering classes and some second guessing as to the need for a CTO at all.

Now however things are back on track with 72 applicants putting up their hand for the role, which will report in to the Prime Minister's office and act as an advisor to the government on all things tech-related.

New Zealand isn't alone in wanting some form of coordinated approach to technology, and in many regards is quite late to the party. The UK government, not exactly renowned for its tech leadership, first talked about needing a quaintly named CIO in 2005 and the US government's "digital czar" role was created in 2009. Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Korea all have a role that captures all of government in its remit.

Yet the role has come in for some criticism locally, with the Taxpayers Union, a body seemingly devoted to explaining why government shouldn't spend money on things, vocally opposing the appointment, claiming the government "hasn't proven the need" for such a role.

The CTO's job will, in no small part, be about aligning the various roles government plays in the tech sector. Currently the government is regulator, provider of services and is the country's largest customer, something which creates a great deal of tension whenever IT projects are discussed. The CTO's role will be to ensure there is some form of collective direction taken among all the various government bodies to ensure rules and requirements applied in one department don't clash with decisions made by another.

But if that's all the CTO role was to be, the Taxpayers Union would have a point - the government already has a Chief Digital Officer in the form of Colin MacDonald whose role is largely to provide government with an internal strategy in this regard. 

Of course, MacDonald has recently resigned himself, so potentially the CDO and CTO roles will be somewhat redefined to provide a clearer definition of the areas each will manage, but that remains to be seen.

However, the real value in the CTO role must surely be in its independence and its role as a voice for the tech sector to talk to government, not the other way round. The CTO role has no authority, no staff and seemingly no budget to conduct the kind of work the Productivity Commission engages in, for example, so the role is one of advising and informing government as much as it is about providing a strategy.

The tech sector has revolutionised many aspects of both the economy and the wider society in which it sits and it doesn't appear to have slowed down at all. The next few decades will see yet more disruption, potentially to new areas that the government will need to manage carefully if New Zealand is to prosper. That's the real role for the CTO.


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