Entrepreneur Derek Handley said no one from the Government has told him why he was dropped as New Zealand's chief technology officer after he'd accepted the job.

"There's nothing untoward here, the actual recruitment process was really robust, I've nothing to hide," he told the Herald in an exclusive interview.

In the face of persistent questions, speculation and innuendo over the recruitment, Handley sat on the sidelines and says he was waiting for the Government to clear things up.

But he says it's been "open season" on him after his contract was terminated and the Government has chosen to keep a lid on his text messages and emails with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and former Minister for Government Digital Services Clare Curran.

Advertisement

READ MORE: 'It feels a bit Star Trek' - texts between Clare Curran and Derek Handley released

Handley is today releasing his messages with Ardern and Curran to "clear the air" and says it clearly shows "there was nothing untoward or inappropriate" in them.

"There's no smoking gun," he said.

Handley, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in New Zealand, has spent the better part of a decade living in New York.

He is perhaps best known for co-founding mobile marketing business The Hyperfactory, which was sold in 2009 for a multimillion-dollar sum.

While Handley and his wife had already decided to return to New Zealand, the family arrived back in the country days before finding out his contract was scrapped.

Asked how the situation had affected him personally, a visibly upset Handley said: "It's unsettling and it's been hard and I wouldn't wish it on anybody.

Derek Handley said the Government did not tell him why he was dropped as NZ's chief technology officer after he'd accepted the job. Photo / Dean Purcell
Derek Handley said the Government did not tell him why he was dropped as NZ's chief technology officer after he'd accepted the job. Photo / Dean Purcell

"It's difficult to move on while this is hanging around."

No one from the Government has explained to him why his contract was terminated on September 12.

"I think the average New Zealander in my situation would expect a lot more, whether it was from the Government or another organisation," he said.

He also worries the handling of his appointment and the subsequent fallout would discourage people in the private sector from taking up a government role.

Curran, who called Handley personally to offer him the job in August, was removed from Cabinet by Ardern a fortnight later over her failure to disclose a meeting she held with the tech entrepreneur in February.

Handley said that meeting was nothing out of the ordinary and applications for the role hadn't even opened at the time.

Other than a text message the following week with the email address for application questions, Handley said he had no further communication with Curran until he arrived at her offices for an interview in July.

After the interview, Handley was subject to an eight-hour assessment by outside consultants that included two psychometric tests.

He was informed he was the successful candidate by Curran on August 8 and was preparing for his appointment to be announced when officials became aware of the pair's February meeting.

Handley said he was told this revelation wouldn't create any problem for his appointment and the Department of Internal Affairs informed him that the recruitment process was continuing.

Subsequent advice provided by the State Services Commission to its minister, Chris Hipkins, even said the process was suitably robust and that the meeting between Curran and Handley did not prejudice it.

During Handley's wait for his appointment to be announced, criticism also emerged from some in the technology sector over Handley's suitability for the CTO role.

Handley put much of that criticism down to people thinking the job was about IT strategy, government procurement and infrastructure.

The CTO job description made it clear, however, that the role was about developing a digital strategy for the whole country, ensuring all New Zealanders have access to technology and about predicting risks and opportunities that aren't on anyone's radar yet.

"The end goal being: How do we position New Zealand for a much better future for the next 20 or 30 years? So we're not sitting here in 30 years, going, 'We could have taken that opportunity'."

Despite his experience, Handley says he still thinks the CTO position is extremely important.

He's unsure, however, whether he'd still be interested in taking up the job. "This role needs to exist in New Zealand and I don't think we'll be served by either burying it or kicking the can down the road.

"I feel overall it's a huge shame that we have lost the opportunity to do this," he said.

"It's a shame for me, I would have loved to have done this."

Megan Woods, who took over as Government Digital Services Minister after Curran's demotion, did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

When it emerged Handley's contract was scrapped this month, Woods said the Government was "rethinking the objective" of the chief technology officer role.

Handley was paid a settlement of $107,500 — three months' pay, plus reimbursement of his costs — after the termination of his contract.

He is donating that money towards "the issue of digital inclusion" and says those funds will be managed by the Spark Foundation.

TIMELINE

February 13 Initial contact between Derek Handley and Clare Curran about Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role
April 24 First contact with Prime Minister about CTO role
June 3 Derek Handley submits application for role to MBIE Digital Economy team via official channel
July 4 Handley advances to interview round of application process
July 13 Handley advances to final phase of application process: testing and assessments
August 8 Handley informed he is the successful candidate for the CTO role
August 20 Clare Curran's office realises the February 22 meeting between Curran and Handley took place
August 21 Plans to announce the CTO role are moved to a new date
September 12 Handley learns the CTO role is being "rethought" and he no longer has the role