Some in the tech community like to poke fun at the Digital Council.
The Government advisory body was prone to excruciatingly politically-correct, vague or even daft language, and some people found sport in re-posting some of its choicer statements to social media.
“Our briefing was accompanied by a 3D-printed tree. The tree represents Aotearoa New Zealand’s digital orchard and all the work that is required to grow and maintain it,” the council announced, as it presented a watery briefing document to Digital Economy Minister David Clark last year.
Alas, the plastic tree bore no fruit.
The ritual fun of mocking the minutes from the council’s monthly meetings, which were posted online, dried up this year as it failed to produce any work.
Its last post was in December 2021.
The Digital Council was set up four years ago to fill the void left after the Government hired Derek Handley to be its tech czar - then changed its mind about having a Chief Technology Officer, and sent the entrepreneur packing with a $107,500 settlement before he could even get his smart shoes under his desk.
“Does the Digital Council still exist?” I asked David Clark’s office on November 3.
It was a valid question, given the industry chatter wondering if the council was dead or, like, Monty Python’s parrot, just resting, following its nearly year-long silence.
A spokesman for Clark’s office could not immediately say. He went away to find out.
In the meantime, I contacted the council’s chair, Mitchell Pham, who said things were all go.
“We haven’t engaged much with external stakeholders this year [but] Digital Council is about to release our next major output next month. We’re all frantically reviewing the research data and developing advice for government.” It involved low-income schools. “The time pressure is immense,” Pham said, as I failed to read between the lines.
A few hours later, a spokesman for Clark offered the more prosaic, “The Council remains in place.” (Which, I’ll concede, was technically true.)
I started to work on a “What’s up with the Digital Council - is there any point to it?” style article, but I was beaten to the punch.
On Wednesday, Clark (who had announced his own retirement just 48 hours before) said the Digital Council was being disbanded.
“A major piece of the council’s work programme was focused on helping shape the Mahi Tahi (inclusion) and Mahi Tika (trust) pillars of the recently launched Digital Strategy for Aotearoa and its action plan,” he said.
“Now this has been delivered, it feels like an appropriate time to disestablish the council and thank its members profusely for their dedicated time and effort. They have been a real catalyst for change.”
Inclusion remains a huge problem. The gap between the digital haves and have-nots remains wide, despite the rare opportunity the pandemic provided for big-bang proposals.
And in terms of trust, Kiwis remain rightly suspicious, and confused, about how the Government, and private sector, treat their data.
Clark didn’t mention the Digital Council’s third workstream, innovation, but here things are still in flux, with policy gyrations between tax breaks and grants, and grizzles from industries like gaming over failure to match Australia’s tax-break incentives and aerospace over red tape - both of which have various players threatening to move offshore.
Too much of the Council’s work was capable descriptions of various problems everyone is already well aware of, with too little in the way of specific solutions.
“Action steps” were often further descriptions of said problems, or calls on various agencies to create an actual action plan (which is essentially the approach of Clark’s longer-form Digital Strategy for Aotearoa).
The council did put forward some interesting ideas, such as UFB fibre being connected to every Kāinga Ora home - an idea it borrowed, with acknowledgement, from InternetNZ. But no meat was ever put on the bones, and Clark’s Digital Strategy made no mention of it.
I should add that Pham is well-regarded and a high achiever in the private sector, and it’s not his fault he and his peers were lumbered with an ineffective vehicle. (For the record, members of the Digital Council were paid a daily rate of $692 plus expenses, when the council was in session. The chair was paid a daily rate of $920.)
The Digital Council was also an advocate of broadband connectivity for marae. A great concept, but one that was already under way and, a measure born out of Realpolitik rather than any high-minded think tank (John Key’s Government lacked Act’s support for the Ultrafast Broadband rollout, so horse-traded with the Māori Party and others to build a broader coalition of support. 4G and 5G spectrum negotiations have also contributed to iwi broadband projects.)
A “Digital Executive” has been put in place to replace the Digital Council and see through Clark’s very broad-strokes action plan.
Unlike the Digital Council, which has drawn from the tech sector, it consists of government insiders - Statistics NZ chair Mark Snowden, Government chief digital officer Paul James, MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain and Brook Barrington, chief executive of the Department of the Prime Minister.
I don’t want to bag Pham, or any other members of the Digital Council - who are all high achievers and well-respected in the industry. It’s not their fault that it was set up as a powerless, mostly ignored body with a vague brief.
But there are many big tech issues that remain.
NZ’s cyber-security spending has been minimal next to Australia’s, we’ve been slow to address the tech skills shortage, procurement policies aren’t supporting the local industry, major diversity issues linger, Big Tech and tax issues remain, and the response to social media harm and misinformation has been tepid, among other issues.
I’d still like to see someone in the tech czar role as originally envisaged back in 2019, who could really take events by the scruff of the neck.
And more so because while the ICT portfolio used to feature big personalities with mana in their parties - think Paul Swain, David Cunliffe, Steven Joyce and Amy Adams - it’s now a place where you get parked after being demoted.