Does New Zealand need a Tech Commissioner?

Shaun Hendy
Shaun Hendy

The Prime Minister has a Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, and now Xero boss Rod Drury thinks that the government also needs a Chief Technology Officer. 

Innovation Minister Steven Joyce is not impressed. In a recent Twitter exchange, he asked Drury why the tech sector needed yet another bureaucrat telling it what to do. Joyce ought to know - his techno-HQ, Callaghan Innovation, is particularly well stocked.

Yet Drury makes some good points. Relying on industry lobbyists for tech advice is bound to lead to trouble. Independent but expert advice is much more likely to lead to better outcomes for the country.

A good tech strategy wielded by a knowledgeable champion could stimulate private sector investment, which could boost productivity right across the economy. 

But these can be tricky roles. Sir Peter Gluckman wrote earlier this year that it was vital for science advisors to steer well clear of funding decisions if they wanted to retain the trust of the science community. 

Good advice, but words that even Sir Peter has found it hard to heed. 

In May he was criticised by the President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists for letting himself get too close to the National Science Challenges, a new fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars that has been under fire for lack of transparency. 

This would be an equally difficult dilemma for our Chief Technology Officer. Any CTO worth her salt would surely have built up considerable private interests in the tech sector. Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, would dog the advice of any CTO who became an advocate for local technology investments.

A CTO who was too close to government would also run the risk of becoming a fire-fighter. Novapay? No problems – just buy it and ask the CTO to sort it out.   

This is why I favour the model for expert advice followed by our Parliamentary Commission for the Environment. Dr Jan Wright, the current Commissioner, provides advice to Parliament rather than to a Minister or Ministry. 

This gives her a degree of independence that Sir Peter does not enjoy. She doesn’t have to fight fires for the government, and can concentrate on addressing fundamental issues of long term significance.

Could a Parliamentary Commission for Science, or for Technology, work as well? 

I think it could. Being able to take the long view is crucial for science, where what we research today shapes our lives for decades to come. 

It’s the same in the tech sector, where companies race to build platforms that may only become profitable many years down the track. A government technology strategy that provided some long term certainty would reduce the risk faced by our tech sector and encourage more firms to go for the big wins. 

And by reporting to Parliament, a commission could develop a strategy that enjoyed the support of both sides of the house, not just the government of the day. It could pursue issues of long term importance to New Zealand, not those that ran on the front page of the Herald that morning.

So I’m with Rod Drury on this. But let’s make sure the advice is for all of us, and not just the politicians.