Where to now for the Chief Technology Officer role?

5:45 pm on 17 September 2018

By Paul Brislen*

Opinion - In the beginning, the idea was mooted that we have a technologically-capable person to help the government.

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A Chief Technology Officer is needed to join the dots between the massive tech systems used by the government. Photo: everythingpossible/123RF

That makes sense, given the government is the single biggest buyer of IT services in the country, spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on technology.

Typically, it does so in silos, with scant regard for any over-arching strategy or vision for the work being done.

For example, district health boards are free to buy whatever systems they like to manage patient records, bookings or staff remuneration, without discussion with other departments around the country.

IT is a game of scale - it's all about how many seats you need to support. Building a bespoke system to support 100 seats is expensive. Building a system to support 100,000 is not, on a per seat basis.

So why don't government departments all work together on such projects? Silos, fiefdoms, the usual reasons.

Everyone thinks they're special and every government department wants to avoid the mistakes made by other departments - so we'll do it our way, thank you very much.

There is overspending on projects - every one of which is customised far more than you'd expect.

Most projects are tendered for and won by big international consultancies or conglomerates, shutting New Zealand developers and solutions out of a strong, viable business opportunity.

A Chief Technology Officer is supposed to fix that.

We have a cross-department Chief Technology Officer (CTO) already - the Department of Internal Affairs has a role that is supposed to oversee such activity and work with departmental CTOs and Chief Information Officers to harmonise things.

That role should be beefed up and move from advisory to directing activity.

Because the patient record tracking solution that one district health board needs is not all that dissimilar to a tax payer tracking solution needed by Inland Revenue. Security, access, permissions and privacy are fundamentally important to both departments so why not work together as much as possible?

But we also need the other kind of Chief Technology Officer. The big picture CTO who looks outside the day-to-day and thinks about the future and its potential impacts on the country as a whole.

That kind of CTO - a futurist - is necessary because our political representatives have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the years when it comes to legislation relating to the big ticket items, such as privacy, or security, or copyright.

We need someone who can calmly explain to them that blockchain is not the solution to all the world's ills, that online voting has its challenges and should raise concerns, that developing a computer game industry could result in a valuable business activity for the country, that connectivity is not a luxury item but an essential.

That role is more akin to the Chief Science Advisor, and as such needs support, a budget and a team of people. The office of the Chief Science Advisor has half a dozen PhD level folk working hard on key issues that will affect New Zealand as a whole.

The Chief Technology Advisor should be similar in terms of resource and capability.

Disruption is coming to New Zealand and we need to think about technology's impacts.

Our primary sector is going to be challenged by artificial protein and meat production that will start with dairy.

Our retail sector is going to run smack into a new world order where our consumption of products is just as likely to take place offshore as on.

Our banking sector will have to adjust to a wave of customers who might not have full time work for one company ever in their banking career, but still want to borrow money to buy houses.

You name the sector and disruption is coming to it in the next few years. Education, medicine, farming, driving. Our legal sector. How many hours a week we work, if we work at all.

We need someone who can explain all of that to the people who make our laws, because all of this will affect our economy, our society and our culture.

We should be prepared.

* Paul Brislen is a technology commentator based in Auckland. He put his name forward for the role of CTO.

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