Election 2020: A forgotten technology industry
New Zealand's technology industry before COVID was the number three export earner behind food and tourism. It was tracking to be the number one export commodity within a few years. It is logical to assume that it is now number two and rapidly heading for number one.
So, you would expect that parties campaigning this year would have robust tech policies that supported the industry. You would expect that, but you would be sadly mistaken.
Only two of the eighteen parties so far in this campaign have outright policies that look at the tech industry and innovation. Two.
This article is going to look at three brief topics. First, what a good tech policy should look like. Second, a look at the two parties that have an actual strategy. Three, why politicians "don't get tech."
Here is what I think good tech policy looks like, something that is simple, short, and achievable rather than a long list of promises and waffling using confusing jargon no one understands.
Technology industry policy
- The government recognises the social and economic value of a thriving technology industry and ensures that any broader policy decisions always involve thinking about that eco-system.
- Government creates export pathways for locally-based companies into our trade partners and heavily subsidises the process of the first contact with those markets to generate higher export earnings.
- Government fixes the total confusion that is tendering within New Zealand and the complete roadblock that is current procurement practices, instead, creating a market free from influence while making it transparent.
- The government recognises that only half the job has been done with internet connectivity and changes stance to ensure that 50% of rural New Zealand who still has poor connectivity is brought into the 21st century.
- Government refines the current education pathway into technology, offering an apprenticeship scheme.
- Government creates a pathway for international technology companies to move and base themselves within New Zealand, "buddying" with local companies for support.
We need politicians to understand the value of the industry because it is increasingly evident that they do not. Each election over the past three or more has seen a decline in technology industry policy despite the sector proliferating. The industry can underpin ALL other strategies if it is engaged and managed well, providing innovative support to all other areas.
Despite the success of some locally based technology companies, the opportunity for export remains high. Most local technology companies immediately focus on trying to get government, who they see as spending a lot of money annual, on their product. However, the real value to New Zealand lies in exporting our technology products and services into the significantly larger global market. There are already mechanisms to do this, such as the Government to Government unit, but they are severely under-resourced.
The local market itself is a mess and has been for two decades. The tendering system and procurement processes are old, expensive, unnecessarily bureaucratic, and heavily weighted to large companies, which in turn favours multinationals. By freeing the market to operate transparently and without those current encumbrances, it will open up more opportunity for local and smaller technology companies to get involved in digitally transforming government and so increasing the quality of service to New Zealanders.
Our largest primary export earner is still food, and the bulk of that production occurs in rural areas. While significant gains were made with the ultrafast broadband across New Zealand urban areas, it is reported that 50% of rural areas still do not have useful internet or mobile access. This impedes the uptake of technology for our primary export industry and the implementation of new technology that could not only increase export earnings but also reduce carbon emissions.
On a personal note. I live in rural Wairarapa, ten kilometres from either Greytown or Carterton. My initial broadband speed when I got here, was less than 1Mbs. Radio was not available because of the terrain in the area and trees in the line of sight. Satellite was the only answer. The installation was around $1,200, with a two-year lock-in, for a service that varies between 8Mbs (at night) to 25Mbs (during the day) with a ping of about 900ms. In addition, I had to spend another $800, extending the wifi base point to reach the rest of the farm. It costs me $220 per month for the service, which is quite reliable, except in severe weather. Most farmers cannot, and will not, pay that kind of money for an internet connection.
An apprenticeship scheme in the technology industry would be a great way to train people quickly and get them working fast, because as we do move post-COVID, the demand of technology workers will go through the roof. Primarily because of the ever-increasing technical debt being incurred by New Zealand and the world.
As I have written before, we could make New Zealand an attractive place for overseas technology companies to work, live, and play. This would again increase our export earnings and bring diversity to the industry that we need more of.
The state of technology industry policy this election
Well now, the moment you have all been waiting for. What on earth is going on with parties and the glaring lack of policy?
The two parties that have comprehensive policies in this space are the Green Party and Sustainable New Zealand. When I researched the other sixteen parties, I could not easily find any technology industry policy. You may feel free to point out if I got this wrong in the comments with links, please!
The Sustainable New Zealand Innovation Plan is excellent. I know nothing about this party outside reading their policy and should point out I am not affiliated to any party. I will leave you to read it and encourage you to do so because it is particularly useful and a great place to start some debate. I.e. I do not think we need to pour money into any more hubs, that have promised much and produced little; however, the idea of investing in good ideas makes sense.
As per usual, every election, the Greens have a good, robust, simple set of policies for the technology industry. There is little you can argue with here, and it shows that they "get it."
Where are the other sixteen parties on technology industry policy?
Back in the 1950's I expect. Even parties like New Zealand First do not have a policy this time around, and the two major parties, do not appear to have either. This is surprising. But on balance, when you think about it, not that surprising.
National focusses on infrastructure, and even when it was in power, it treated technology policy the same as infrastructure, spawning the UFB network.
Labour has not had an excellent record with technology this term, being distracted by a series of crises that have needed to be managed. They have achieved almost nothing of their policy last time, and we all know the unmitigated PR disasters that dogged this area early in the term.
But all of this points to politicians who do not understand technology, and, are perhaps scared of it, especially after several high-profile IT projects failing in the last three years. It may be that they equate the technology industry with those high-profile failures as opposed to an enabling sector that could increase wealth, health, and quality of living by reducing our carbon emissions.
Various lobby groups have tried to educate politicians and have largely failed. There are many reasons for this, and the most likely one is that they were divided and conquered by bureaucrats after the last election who have shuffled them into working groups and kept them far, far away from the political leaders with influence.
Not targeting ALL significant parties with critical messages about the industry is probably also a mistake. We need to educate all politicians, whether in government or not, of the potential of the sector.
Finally, because the current government has declared this a "COVID election", the focus has been on that, not the future. Competing parties had an opportunity to reject that strategy, but have chosen to participate in that battlefield themselves, where they will most likely lose.
All politicians and parties had a chance to set out what the future looks like, with or without COVID, and how we could achieve that. Instead, they are mired in a field of mud, blood, and horror, fighting over every small point that can be battled.
Perhaps the broader tragedy in this is that appear to have very, very few strategic thinking leaders in the ranks of those that want to be in parliament.
If that is the case, then, we should consider moving ahead personally, and as an industry, and leaving them to follow along behind us.
As always, your thoughts are welcome. I appreciate your feedback.
Ian is a long time technologist and industry commentator who is finding to reflect as he looks for his next engagement. He lives on a farm in the Wairarapa and when not working in technology writes, grows chillies, and trains horses with his partner.
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