Election technology policies; do they do enough?
Jordan Carter Chief Executive and Kim Connolly-Stone Policy Director •
So, it's election time.
We took a look to see what the contenders are offering that benefits the Internet. The usual technology policies have been a little slow to emerge, perhaps due to COVID-19 distractions, which is a little surprising when we consider how critical the Internet, and other technologies, are to getting through the pandemic and to our economic recovery.
The Green Party was the exception to this, coming out relatively early with its High tech economy policy. A couple of weeks ago, National released its NZ Tech 2030 Plan. Nothing announced from Labour yet, so we need to use what they currently have on the go as a proxy, and the recently released Digital inclusion action plans | NZ Digital government provides some information. We haven’t seen anything from the other parties.
Helping New Zealanders to harness the power of the Internet is our thing, so we focused mainly on the digital inclusion and Internet related aspects of the technology policies.
Without these foundations, other aspects of technology policy—growing and supporting the tech sector, using technology to grow other parts of the economy, and government use of ICT—will fail to deliver on the promise they hold.
Who is doing what for digital inclusion
This is something we have been talking about a lot lately with The five point plan for digital inclusion: COVID-19 and beyond.
We were looking to see what parties are promising in terms of affordable connectivity, getting devices to those who can’t afford them, support for the newly connected, digital skills for individuals and small businesses, and Internet infrastructure.
Assessing the Green Party offering in this area was pretty easy. Green Party policy includes implementing the Five Point Plan for Digital inclusion.
National is promising to invest $1 billion to complete the build of the Ultra Fast Broadband Network and the Rural Broadband Initiative, and to get decent speeds. This sounds about the right amount of money to get the job done, but there is no mention of making this connectivity affordable, and therefore available to all, and the other things needed to get New Zealanders online.
The National digital skills offering is at the more advanced end of the digital skills spectrum, with some good initiatives at the tertiary level with scholarships for students from low decile schools to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), and funding for ICT (Information Communication Technology) Graduate schools. However, there doesn’t seem to be anything for those without the foundational digital skills, or getting into tech without tertiary qualifications.
We recently assessed Labour’s digital inclusion action plan in our post, The new government digital inclusion action plan—has it done enough for a MallowPuff?. There is new money for digital skills for individuals ($10 million) and small businesses ($15 million), and a funding injection for libraries to help with digital literacy and reading ($30 million). $50 million from the Provincial Growth Fund has been allocated to Internet infrastructure, and there is an undertaking to talk about Internet affordability, but no specifics on that.
Coordination and digital technology policy
Having an election policy on digital technology is one thing, but seeing how this translates into strategy and cross government action is another.
National is saying it will establish a Minister for Technology to provide the sector with a champion in government. Getting clear about who in government is responsible for what is important. The responsible minister should not just be the champion of the tech sector, they need to lead and own a coordinated cross government digital technology strategy—one that has clear intersects with areas such economic strategy, education, communications and welfare policy.
Obviously one minister can’t own all of this, but they do need to get Cabinet to sign on to a cross-cutting strategy that brings it all together. Without this sort of strategy it’s impossible to get cross government coordination and commitment, and the necessary funding. Agencies, and Ministers, will put their own focused goals ahead of an integrated plan without this kind of coordination. It’s a major weakness in how governments have dealt with technology in recent years, and this election marks a good time to sort it out.
Digital technology within government
An area that is often forgotten in technology policies is the use of technology by government. The exception to this is the use of government procurement as a way to boost local tech firms, which we see in the Green policy.
Government services are increasingly online. Governments use digital technology to solve problems. Governments want to encourage the tech sector to push the boundaries with artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
What we are not yet seeing is a commitment to social licence alongside technology promotion uptake. By social license, we mean an open door to New Zealanders to talk about the use of digital technology by government and how it affects their lives, uses their data and impacts their privacy. With COVID-19, we saw this play out with the introduction of the contact tracing app. Uptake was slow due to the lack of social licence conversation.
Social licence isn’t something specifically mentioned in the technology policies to date. National is talking about establishing a regulatory icebreaker unit to work with technology firms to develop best in class regulation for new and disruptive technologies. If such a unit is established it should also engage the community about technology and regulation. The current Government has work on the go with the Algorithm Charter, which contains a commitment for government agencies to use algorithms in a fair, ethical and transparent way.
It’s time to sort tech policy out, to benefit every Kiwi
Our hope is that the next Government takes the steps that are needed to make technology, and the changes it brings, work for all New Zealanders.
That means more investment in digital inclusion, a compelling vision for how we’ll all work to help people harness the power of the Internet, and changes in how government works to make the most of the opportunities in front of us.
In these COVID-19 days, the possibilities beyond our shores that technology can bring to us—or bring us to—are more vital than ever before and so is the clarity about what it means for people’s lives if they aren’t connected. Being digitally excluded these days isn’t just a hassle - it’s a major problem, and it’s a problem nobody should have to face.
For the wellbeing of us all, and for the path to economic progress we all need to see, it’s time to get this area right. Here’s hoping that the politicians will make that happen once polling day is done.