New to cabinet and new to the sector, Amy Adams will face a number of challenges in the ICT portfolio. In addition to ICT, Adams is minister for internal affairs and associate minister for the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery. She talks to Stephen Bell about her experience and her priorities for the next three years.
You come from a legal and farming background?
Legal, yes; farming came later. I’m a city girl originally; mostly from Auckland. I moved to Canterbury to go to law school and met my now-husband there and have been with him on the farm ever since I’ve been married. The farming’s come to me as a package deal with the husband.
What area of law? Anything that will have a bearing on your ICT portfolio?
Not particularly, but I come from a commercial, transactional part of the legal world, so there’s a focus on putting together deals and structures and understanding some of the broader aspects of corporate governance. Broadly I’ve been in commercial and property law.
You don’t have a background in computing or telecommunications?
Not particularly; I don’t think that’s why I’ve been put into the role. I think I’ve been put here for my governance and commercial skills. I freely admit that the technical expertise I will get from those around me. I certainly don’t claim to be an industry expert. In the law our everyday bread-and-butter work is getting involved in industries that we’re not expert in, but coming to grips with them enough to be effective in working out the issues and how we need to put together transactions going forward. So [moving into ICT] is not that unusual.
What was your reaction when you were offered the post? Did you express a desire beforehand to get into this area?
No, it was very much a matter of the Prime Minister phoning me and advising me that he wanted me to take on those portfolios; and of course I was delighted to get the call. Then it was a matter of getting my head around what those [portfolios] involve.
The more I’ve read and learned about the sector the more excited I’ve been to be in the role; I think there’s some tremendous opportunities and some very nice synergies between that and my other primary portfolio [Internal Affairs], given that DIA is the lead agency for government ICT and for leading the government aspect of the UFB five-point plan. I see that the use of ICT is going to be the fundamental driver of both those roles.
How do you see progress on improving public-sector efficiency through use of ICT so far?
Obviously it’s something that government is rethinking and there’s been some work before I came to the role, around setting up a whole-of-government view; setting up DIA as the centre of excellence for that and setting some very clear expectations about the use of ICT in government.
We’re starting to look at how we can do it better; not only at driving value for money but also the way government can interact far better with New Zealanders and provide services that are more flexible and responsive to what New Zealanders need.
The reality is that people want to interact with us the way they do with other organisations – simply and easily, whether it’s from your smartphone or your computer or whatever it is. Government has slipped behind the private sector in that sort of responsiveness and that’s what we’re looking at addressing.
I think the opportunities for better service delivery are tremendous if we can harness the way government uses ICT and maximise the opportunities.
What is top of mind for you at the present?
Firstly that the Ultra Fast Broadband and Rural Broadband Initiative [projects] continue to roll out as expected but also that we see some steps being taken towards their becoming productive and actually adding value for New Zealand. I’ve talked often about seeing Minister Joyce [former ICT minister] as the minister for getting the stuff in the ground and I’m the minister for making sure it’s productive.
How do you see yourself approaching that question of making it more productive? To my mind that means showing people how it can be productively used; would you agree?
Yes and no; I think there’s a couple of points. The government, before the election, came up with its five-point plan on how we’re going to drive that. My view is that it’s not simply something that happens by one or two clever initiatives; it’s something that will snowball over time.
But the things that we can immediately drive, the things that we’ve targeted for early wins, are e-health, e-education and e-government initiatives, largely because they’re things that we control the drivers on.
The other big part of the productivity gain is around the business sector. I think we do have a role in that, but, as you say, it’s more around talking to them; showing them how it can work for them – an advisory role.
The other core component is industry developing the products and services that will allow the best use of it. So it’s very much a partnership between what we can do in a supportive role and what industry does in terms of its products and offerings.
So what’s the role of government in influencing and monitoring industry? Can you realistically do anything to steer the direction of industry?
I think we can do some things; it is around monitoring and assisting and encouraging; but always with the knowledge that at the back of all that we have the power to regulate aspects of it. So if we find there are bottlenecks that are affecting uptake because, for example, there’s a particular part of the chain that’s not providing competition or there’s an insufficient working together of some of the players, then that’s something obviously that we can involve ourselves in.
In terms of delivering the products and the commercial aspects, that’s something we will watch and monitor and support as far as we can.
And the next priority?
That’s around the digital dividend, the allocation of the 700 MHz band. I’m making sure we do that in a way that’s efficient and effective and provides the best outcome for New Zealand. That’s easy to say, but there are some very big decisions that underpin that.
There are two different consultations: with MED and with the Maori Affairs Minister. Can you give us an update on those?
I wouldn’t say they are parallel processes. There are issues that have been raised by the Maori Affairs Minister and the claimants to the Waitangi Tribunal about their view of [the process] and we have indicated in our supply and confidence agreement with the Maori Party that we want to reach some resolution of their concerns by May at the latest.
So I’m working with Minister Sharples on that; it will work its way through, but that’s obviously not something I’m going to conduct in the public space.
As you say, the MED is running a very wide consultation process with the industry and all interested parties around what the best and most efficient use of that spectrum is and how it can be divided and allocated.
You’re still on track to meet that May deadline?
That’s the date that I’ve been given and I’m going to do my best to meet that. It’s early days and I have yet to sit down and have a good discussion with Minister Sharples, but that’s scheduled for the next few weeks. Obviously we’re both going to have to work very hard to meet that date.
Do you see those two topics perhaps disproportionately dominating the portfolio? A lot of commenters responding to our story on your appointment seemed to have that apprehension.
I don’t think they’ll take up all the available oxygen; clearly they’re significant priorities for me in the portfolio and I don’t think anyone would see that as inappropriate. That’s always the case with any portfolio, that there are certain high-priority topics; but there’s a lot of work going on in tandem with that and a number of things I’m receiving advice from my officials on and working on over and above those.
What’s number three on the priority list?
What I’d put at number three are issues of cybersecurity and the resilience of the network. Increasingly as we seek to encourage uptake and productive use of UFB/RBI and the 4G spectrum, that has to go hand in hand with being very cognisant of the importance of a robust, resilient and secure network.
Tomorrow, in part two of this Q & A, Amy Adams discusses cybersecurity, the perceived skills shortage in ICT, and the question of Sky TV's dominance.