The Digital Council’s advice to the New Zealand Government about building an empowered digital economy, post pandemic
Yesterday, the Digital Council, the Government's digital advisory group, released its statement of recommendations post-COVID-19 recovery. I spoke to Mitchell Pham, Council Chair, just after the release, for more detail.
The letter was titled Aotearoa’s Digital Landscape Beyond the Covid-19 Response. It was addressed to Hon Kris Faafoi, Minister for Government Digital Services and Hon James Shaw, Minister of Statistics.
1. Boosting social and digital inclusion with coordinated strategy
The Digital Council recommends the Government’s technology investment decisions go beyond solely private profit objectives, toward longer-term, social aims that are about holistic and equitable technology access. They see that expanding access and diversifying use of technology will empower the economy and society, as well as address the growing skills shortage and historical reliance on importing overseas talent.
“As New Zealand emerges from this crisis, it is critical to guard against the risk of digitalisation further marginalising people who are already vulnerable to being left behind,” Pham explains. “The key word ultimately is ‘empowerment’. We have a very diverse population. If we take actions to include everyone and empower everyone with digital capabilities, then the economy will be empowered as a whole.”
Diversified technology will also respond to the digital divide, which is more visible, acute and urgent than it ever has been before. “We’ve always had a digital divide,” Pham explains, “but COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation across the board. Businesses have been forced to go online in a really condensed amount of time”.
“This is the main challenge for New Zealand’s social and economic participation,” he says.
The Council’s Letter to Government outlines that building genuine choice for New Zealanders in their technology decisions will be enabled by integrated and holistic strategy.
But the Letter cautions that a strategic approach must be carefully considered to avoid algorithmic biases in digital technologies, like “a chatbot who learns to communicate in a sexist manner due to user engagement without the barriers needed to prevent this”.
Government action in the private sector and partnerships with the community will be key, as will be coordinated, long-term responses to the need for connectivity, affordability and access to devices. Pham explains, “to empower technology skill pathways, they need to be taught with speed and in response to real-world needs”.
Ready-to-go – ‘shovel ready’ – digital infrastructure must be in place to respond to these immediate needs, in a connected, affordable, holistic and restorative manner. As the Government rolls out fibre and 5G to enable jobs, the Digital Council recommends it prioritise not only business, global trade and productivity, but also inclusion, participation and connection.
The Council’s Letter to Government details two ways in which COVID-19 has triggered innovations in social and economic participation. First, work and cultural events are moving online. Secondly, the Government is acting faster to transform critical areas, such as its recent rapid delivery of 17,000 devices to school students in need.
“Time is the big challenge here,” Pham says, “especially to the vulnerable New Zealanders who need results now.”
2. Leveraging technology to empower business
A second recommendation is that the Government take leadership on equipping New Zealand’s business network with enhanced technology tools.
New Zealand’s small business network – with 97 percent operating with fewer than 20 staff – will be helped by increased incentives such as cloud-technology adoption, international e-commerce and digital capability training.
Larger organisations also have opportunities to adopt digital tools and reframe their focus towards a more digital and export-ready outlook.
An enhanced digital footprint would simultaneously allow New Zealand’s technology sector to build its knowledge and skills focused on our infrastructure costs, needs, efficiencies and innovations.
Mitchell comments: “The tech sector has a role to play as an enabler, first with off-setting the anticipated impact of COVID-19 on unemployment, but also by getting more people into tech type roles that will drive more equitable tech outcomes.”
Such leadership is key to reinforcing New Zealand’s reputation as a leading digital nation, building on an already powerful reputation for entrepreneurship.
This well-recognised entrepreneurial mindset could play a pivotal role in our post-COVID recovery.
Pham says, “New Zealand’s resounding entrepreneurial nature is one of our major assets, and with the right leadership by government, digital and data-driven innovation can revitalise the sectors hardest hit, such as tourism, hospitality and the primary industries, as well as create new industries and ways of working.”
3. Prioritising technology sector employment
With the local technology industry’s revenue growing, the Government has more opportunity to invest in digital skills that are much needed in an empowered economy.
Tech-focused or tech-enabled industries are being shown more clearly than ever to be the best place to allocate resources, retrain workers and redirect traditional industries onto a digital pathway.
This is even more pronounced with New Zealand’s “first mover advantage” that could place it well on the path to be a leader in transformation and innovation. Local initiatives, such as TORO, the Tairāwhiti-based animation centre, was conceptualised during Level Four to reach international production business and has already created 50 new jobs and 20 internships.
New Zealand has the “first mover advantage coming out of lockdown early so we believe the Government needs to show leadership and support to tech firms…. It’s a window of opportunity with other countries catching up. We need to do to this now, and at speed. The potential if we do is vast.”
Reframing investment projects to be more future focused (i.e. from ‘shovel ready’ to being ‘sensor ready’) would also help this cause, the Letter says.
“If we would see thousands of New Zealanders re-trained in technology, or enhancing their tech competency, and working again by the end of the year, this would represent an inclusive approach to radically shift our society, and our nation’s capabilities,” Pham says. “This could be a fundamentally different and more holistic society than has never existed before.”
Pham reports that “it is overly simplistic to consider digital and data as a sole workstream. These technologies are woven through all sectors of the economy, and our society. It’s a national problem but also an individual and business problem”.
4. Privacy and trust in technology outcomes
Digital empowerment is a journey for which, as Mitchell Pham notes throughout this discussion, trust will be key.
While the Government’s response to the COVID-19 containment has generally been well-received, the Digital Council raises concerns that its surveillance policies are likely to come under scrutiny.
Most telling is its current approach to contact tracing and finding the right stance between privacy concerns and the overriding health imperative. “The jury is still out on whether the right balance has been struck here in New Zealand,” Pham explains.
The StatsNZ Data Ethics Advisory Group has the kind of expertise that could help preserve public confidence in areas such as technology, especially cloud storage and data.
There may also be fear involved with digital change that must be managed as companies may be unfamiliar or worried about the changes.
Pham explains: “Remote work is getting a lot of gain, but companies may be fearing that they’re not able to supervise their employees closely. Given Kiwis are mostly very hardworking and honest people, there need to be mechanisms in place to avoid trust in these business relationships being breached.”
Read the Letter to the Ministers in the Digital Council’s latest blog: Beyond Covid-19: A Summary of our Advice to Ministers
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