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Brislen on Tech: New Minister of Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 06 November 2020, 2:57 pm

The elephant that's not in the room

There's a lot going on at the moment that can raise the old anxiety levels so let's get to it.

The US election is a fight to the bitter end at this point… votes are being counted or not counted where they should or shouldn't depending on who you listen to.

It seems likely as I write this that Joe Biden will win the presidency but that the Republican Party will hold the senate, making for uncomfortable bedfellows who refuse to agree on anything and we end up with four years of stagnation and wasted time.

The tech industry in the US appears to think this is choice and would like to see more of it. Stock prices have gone up and it's all being laid at the feet of "well if they can't agree we won't see any regulation of the tech sector any time soon".

Which makes me want to regulate it more, so it's probably just as well I'm not in any position of authority.

There's plenty to regulate in the US tech scene - from social media platforms publishing objectionable material to tax escapism (I forget the legal term but let's face it, each of us as individuals pays more tax than our giant tech overlords), from data protection and privacy rights to consumer guarantees about longevity of hardware. Have at it, I say.

But the last time there was a hearing that I watched it was a debacle. The techs didn't answer questions, the politicians clearly didn't know what they were actually doing and the whole thing was a sham of political theatre and watching CEOs dance on the head of a pin.

Locally we've also had an election and a clean sweep and a new minister has been appointed: David Clark has a PhD was a treasury analyst and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He's also the new Minister of all things tech, but there's little evidence he's ever done anything in the tech sector beyond use a laptop to send email and his phone to watch cat videos.

He's not alone either - none of the current crop have tech experience and only a couple could even be considered tech adjacent.

And given the way Clark has been handed a small bundle of ministries that don't really have any pressing agenda the upshot is clear: he's coming back from disgrace and a fall from the heady heights of Minister of Health, but let's not give him anything contentious.

So the portfolio is Clark's to use and run with, or his to hide behind and hope nobody notices.

This is not ideal.

I've been thinking a lot about how we can get more training and understanding about the tech sector into our political arena because it's important to me and I think to the country as a whole.

If we can't hire politicians with a background in the tech sector then we have to train up the current crop to ensure they know what's what. But politicians are really busy, so we need something else. Some third way.

Mulling this over the other day I realised we have a shining example of what to do already at play in the Department of the PM and Cabinet (DPMC). There we have a group of advisors who are independent, have no line management requirements but a clear remit to deliver advice and guidance on key issues.

The Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor consists of a team of six people supported with a secretariat and funded to explore six key principles. The PMCSA:

  • provides strategic advice across sectors, and does not seek to influence operational or funding matters within the science system;
  • serves as an accessible conduit between the science community and government;
  • provides advice on specific topics, to the Prime Minister or other Ministers;
  • plays a role in raising the profile of science in Aotearoa New Zealand;
  • assists in making science more accessible to the public; and
  • builds relationships internationally with science advisors and international thought leaders.

The model could quickly be adapted for the tech sector with similar requirements and the ability to review key issues of the day, as well as liaise with both academics and the business community.

Tech Media Panel - 6:11:2020.mp4

Let's look at the work the PMCSA has delivered this year. Cannabis reform, rethinking plastics, fish, 5G, and COVID. There's a section devoted to future trends and issues that may be covered.

A tech sector equivalent could look at privacy, consumer data rights, social media's impact, the role of connectivity in modern society, economic opportunity of the tech sector and then we could have a section on "things you hear about which never quite get explained properly" such as AR/VR, artificial intelligence and blockchain.

With a team of half a dozen advisors you could actually dig into the issues. Are Kiwis getting a fair deal from their social media platforms? What are the trends in terms of technology in education? How do we encourage youth into the industry? What's best practice for government agencies handling personal data? What should our R&D targets be?

If we can't vote in tech-capable people or train up those that are in power, let's at least give them the best advice we can and make sure New Zealand is well placed for the future. Because whatever today's vote, whatever the numbers say, the future is coming, whether we're ready or not.


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Gary Mersham 06 November 2020, 6:44 pm

Is there an opportunity to employ a lobbyist to convince Nash to reconsider the ITP plan and recognise the value of a much more focussed digital economy for the country?

Carl Klitscher 07 November 2020, 3:03 pm

One option is for Govt. to divert some of the money we spend on US conglomerates for Office and Cloud services to supporting NZ tech to provide equivalent Open Source based alternatives. The current AoG 'deals' we have with MS/Amazon/Google effectively lock out NZ based providers... Currently whenever cloud services are mentioned in the Ministries it is automatically assumed to be Azure without any serious question.

ACC and IRD almost showed the way with their investment in Big Data Hadoop environments via a company called MapR... MapR may have collapsed but the investment and experience ACC/IRD made in the underlying Open Source Hadoop development still remains... but isn't being leveraged because neither organisation see themselves as part of a wider NZ based development community.

And now they are looking at investing in yet another US based company, Snowflake. So round we go again. NZ taxpayer money being sent offshore rather than to stimulate the local NZ economy.

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