Where is New Zealand’s chief technology officer?

by Bill Ralston / 03 July, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - NZ chief technology officer

Digital Services Minister Clare Curran. Photo/Getty Images

The quest goes on for a chief technology officer to lead the country into the technology future. 

Where is New Zealand’s chief technology officer? It seems we don’t yet have one, although the Government began talking about making such a appointment as far back as November.

I could be cruel and point out that in the same period the Prime Minister managed to produce a new baby, Digital Services Minister Clare Curran has failed to find someone for this role, but I won’t.

The idea of hiring a national chief technology officer is to help us become a whizz-bang digital superpower. More than 60 people applied when the position was first advertised, but none fitted the bill. The Government then souped up its advertising campaign to try to attract international techies to the role.

The position will pay about $400,000-$500,000, which is good money here in Godzone, but the prospect of convincing an international tech guru to cross the planet for that kind of cash may be a little forlorn. I cannot imagine Bill Gates reading the job advert in the US, thwacking his thigh, and saying, “Honey, we’re movin’ to Noo Zeelan’.”

I read a headline in the Guardian that said, “New Zealand wants you: the problem with tech at the edge of the world”, the patronising tone of which ignored the fact that Christopher Columbus proved more than 500 years ago that there is no edge. What’s more, the marvellous technology at the heart of the story makes us anything but isolated.

The Dunedin journalist who wrote the otherwise excellent article points out that the tech and innovation sector here already employs more than 120,000 people and is the third-largest contributor to the country’s economy, behind agriculture and tourism.

But the Greens are worried about visitor numbers and the Government wants technology to rise to second place by 2025.

This is probably an admirable aim. Tourist numbers are becoming unsustainable. I live in one of the country’s tourism hotspots and cannot reverse out of my driveway without nearly flattening groups of wobbling visitors pedalling past to the next winery on our country road.

But is a solitary chief technology officer going to provide the digital boost to hoist the sector into the No 2 spot? The perpetual grumblers of the Taxpayers’ Union believe not. Calling it expensive tokenism, they say, “The Government hasn’t actually proven the need to fork out $500,000 a year for a chief tech-head.”

This ignores the fact that governments seldom “prove the need” for anything they do. For governments of all stripes, the main drivers of decision-making are generally: will this make us more popular, win us more votes and make us look like we’re in charge when, seriously, we haven’t got a clue?

Curiously, the tech-head appointment is for one year only, with an option to renew for another year. Considering that the CTO is unlikely to achieve a digital revolution in one or even two years, it may not be the most fulfilling role.

Certainly, the fact that the technology chief is described as being “accountable to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, and Government Digital Services”, while providing independent expert advice to the rest of Cabinet “and senior leaders”, makes it sound an exhausting position.

The appointee may be grateful it is a short-term assignment.

As a digital layman, I will have to await the results of the new tech guru’s brief term in office before deciding whether he or she was a waste of money.

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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