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Brislen on Tech: Show us your policies

Paul Brislen, Editor. 11 September 2020, 10:00 am

When I was thinking about this column I thought I'd canvas the political parties views on tech and innovation, on all matters digital and on the ICT sector.

After all, ICT is the second largest export earner (sorry tourism), employs thousands of people, brings innovation and opportunity to the table, doesn't require us to dig up national parks or drill for oil and is a highly paid, highly skilled, highly sought after sector.

Given the economic crisis facing the world as a result of COVID-19, any political party worth its salt should be focused on two short term issues: keeping citizens safe and keeping the economy alive (the implied longer term goal of sorting out the environmental disaster that is unfolding around us is outside the remit of this column as it's just too big for me to get my arms around at the moment).

And so it was I trotted off to the internet to review the parties' policies and muse out loud about their plans for your enjoyment and edification.

Unfortunately, this is not that column. Not because I changed my mind or because something more important came up but because they don't have any policies to scrutinise. They don't have any plans to unpick. There is no strategy, there is no policy.

ICT Policy

Labour's policy page has 18 tiles (12 of which feature Jacinda Ardern which makes sense I suppose) relating to key policy areas. There's COVID, naturally, transport, foreign policy, justice, housing and health among others.

There's even one for the primary industry, which lays out quite a bit of detail about industry needs, spending and training. But there's nothing about ICT.

Under Economy and Finance there's nary a word, nor can we find it under Education and Training and while there's a mention of it in Foreign Affairs and Trade (relating to the Christchurch Call and the "commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online") it's fleeting at best.

New Zealand First doesn't have one because it's policy page points to the Coalition Agreement and suggests we "download the PDF" but the link doesn't work. Neither National nor Act bother to mention the sector at all.

Only the Greens have an explicit ICT policy and while it's full of the sorts of things you'd expect to see (the internet should be "free, open and unrestricted", government should encourage the use of open software, we should close the digital divide) it's light on details and lacking in any kind of initiatives or practical steps to introduce these lofty goals.

At this election the two MPs most publicly engaged with the tech sector - Clare Curran and Gareth Hughes - will both depart for new ventures leaving parliament largely unencumbered with MPs who understand the opportunities and potential of the tech sector for New Zealand as an economy, as a community and as a society.

Stuff the lot of them, I say.

Here are ten quick policy ideas that any political party is welcome to consider and they range from the easy to deploy to lofty goals.

1: Training and education

We should be encouraging kids to get into the tech sector and making it as easy as possible for them to do so. More teachers should be employed, more tertiary courses made available, and more funding given to building a generation of tech heads. There's a world of demand for them out there and we will never be able to supply all its needs but we can certainly try. The upside is, tech is a well-paid sector and the ensuing wealth generated by all those Kiwi IT folk spending money in the local marketplace will help boost government coffers further.

We need fewer marketing people, fewer management types, fewer lawyers and accountants and more game developers, cybersecurity experts and programmers.

And while we're at it, let's make 'critical thinking' a standard curriculum item for kids at primary school all the way through, eh? The more we can teach them about who's trying to tell them lies and rubbish the sooner they can start saying "hang on a minute" when their aunty shares madcap Facebook memes thinking they're real.

2: Government as buyer of services

Government is our largest market for ICT product in New Zealand yet it doesn't leverage that ability very well at all. Require government to buy locally made or explain why they aren't and we boost the local economy, produce jobs for more Kiwis and who knows - the rest of the world might actually want to buy our kit off us as well.

And then there's the duplication. Let's buy sensibly, eh government? Does each and every school, hospital, government department and local council really need a bespoke client management solution? Reader: it does not.

3: Research and development

New Zealand's R&D spend remains woeful - less than half the OECD average. That shortfall comes primarily from the investment sector - the public spend is on par with other countries, but we simply don't encourage investment in the tech sector here. Government can pull on the taxation lever all it likes but the real problem is a lack of understanding or awareness among local money lenders. We need to address that head on - government doesn't need to spend more but it does need to encourage and enable investors to come here and set up shop. That should be a priority.

4: Privacy and Consumer Data Rights

We need to encourage more people to be more comfortable using services online and while COVID has done a good job of turning us all into online shoppers, we need to extend that out to include government services and all manner of other interactions as well.

That means training but it also means upweighting the Privacy Act and enshrining New Zealanders' rights to their own data in a new Consumer Data Rights act. Give it some teeth and make sure we have informed consent before we move data around the place or copy a user's entire web history or Facebook account, for instance.

5: Cybersecurity

We need a much stronger stance on this. Currently we have the GCSB and its National Cyber Security Centre and MBIE has CERT NZ which will help raise the public's awareness of issues but we need so much more. This will be a huge battleground in the next decade and probably longer - we aren't ready and we need to be to ensure we don't have foreign actors sowing the seeks of chaos while our backs are turned. More money, more funding, more awareness, more training, more support.

6: Economic opportunity

Seize the day, New Zealand! Let's get out there and champion our ICT sector in international trade. Where is our Fielddays equivalent for the tech sector? Why isn't ICT our first discussion when we're selling our wares offshore? Why do we have the Productivity Commission writing reports that say we can never build stuff locally so we shouldn't even bother?

7: Regional economic opportunity

While we're at it, let's help decentralise our ICT companies. Let's pay them to move out to the Hawke's Bay or Northland, or Nelson. Let's encourage new high tech entrepreneurs into New Zealand but incentivise them to set up shop outside the main centres. We have the UFB out to 75% of the population - let's push on and get the rest of the country connected. Let's build those billion dollar businesses from the bach.

8: New Zealand digital taonga

It is critically important that New Zealand retains ownership of its own history and its own culture. To do that we have to make sure New Zealand data is treated by New Zealand laws, that local content is produced and curated and stored and shared locally. There is so much to do on this topic alone we should have started a decade ago but let's get on with it now.

9: The robots aren't just coming for our jobs, they're here, so what are we going to do about it? I look forward to my GP telling me she's pretty sure that lump is nothing to worry about but she's run the biopsy through the AI which agrees. The robots won't sit in our seats but they'll replace the middle men in so many industries and it won't by driving buses or flying planes (although it will eventually) but it'll be the AI that assists the doctor, the legal software that works cheaply and delivers better wills and contracts, the chatbot that eventually gets it right for customer service. We need a plan for how we're going to retrain all those people who would otherwise be employed by jobs the robots can do. And then we need a plan for the rest of us.

10: What about bitcoin and blockchain? What about AI and machine learning? What about AR/VR? What's the next big thing? Government doesn't know and it's terrified of being taken for a ride by the next snake oil salesman singing a jaunty song about monorails. We actually do need practical hands-on advice for government about what's real, what's plausible, what's possible and what's total rot. We actually do need a government CIO who has some weight to be able to oversee spending and deployments and to rein in the excesses of the industry.

There you go - that's ten policies in ten minutes. I'm sure there are others that make a lot more sense - let me know what you'd like to see on the agenda for the next policy session of your preferred party. And if you're not registered, do sign up so you can vote. You may not get the sticker this year because of COVID but you certainly will contribute to a better New Zealand.


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Ron Segal 11 September 2020, 10:34 am

Well done Paul. Excellent analysis and recommendations.

In my observations most people in NZ still view ICT as 'keeping the lights on', rather than as a serious primary industry contender.

I wish that we could refer to 'information engineering' rather than ICT, as that is the goal, with the technology a means to that end.

Every leader should understand that ultimately energy and information underpin economic success and well-being of any nation and indeed mankind in general. But apparently they don't! Or don't understand the implications that should inform policies.

Gordon Milne 11 September 2020, 10:57 am

Does every sector really need its own little corner in policy documents? What if sectors just got on with what they did and tried to make a living whilst doing so? Why does the government need to get involved with a sector? The only reason I can see for government involvement is where the sector under punitive pressures that has it working at a disadvantage. Is that the case of ICT in NZ?

Having said all that, I can fully see every other industrial sector trying to get their own bit into the various parties policy documents. Unfortunately, for ICT, it has become kind of ubiquitous and it appears across the board in everything but always as a backup to the main player that is centre stage, especially in farming-related matters.

Also, I don't think the NZ public is excited about the nerds in the back office. Too clever and often too smug. The NZ public understands things like farms and aluminium smelting. It doesn't really "get" ICT.

I agree with you that each DHB/council/school does not need an individual solution tailored to its own needs. This is just costing the NZ tax/rate-payers a silly amount of money. All DHBs should be using the same core application up and down that land. The same goes for councils and schools. Unfortunately, NZ likes this individualism in its institutions. However, that individualism should be at the policy-setting level, not at the implementation level. I still find it amazing that every school has a board of governors and that I get to elect members of a DHB, and that there are so many DHBs for 5M people

Paul Brislen 11 September 2020, 12:20 pm

Hi Gordon, as I noted the primary sector has policies and plans/strategies for growth. Tourism also is highly noted by most parties - but ICT doesn't get a look in. We don't lobby hard enough and governments for years have failed to see ICT as something NZ can do so I think we do need to do more and expect more on this front and it starts and ends with government.

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