They didn’t talk to us say IT bodies

Discontent has arisen in the wake of the government's ICT Strategy document that not enough stakeholders outside government were consulted before its release.

Discontent has arisen in the wake of the government’s ICT Strategy document that not enough stakeholders outside government were consulted before its release.

Neither the export-focused Software New Zealand, previously the NZ Software Society, nor the the NZ Computer Society were consulted before the release of the document, which lays out the government’s thinking on IT and communications technology.

“I suppose we come in on the consultative meetings to be held [last and this week]” says Ian Mitchell of Software New Zealand. The Computer Society’s Hayden Easte also expressed surprise that the society’s opinion was not canvassed in advance of the 122-page draft report.

But this is normal practice, says the minister’s office.

A spokesman for Associate IT Minister David Cunliffe says initial consultancy was confined to government agencies, which is the normal procedure for evolving policy. The other stakeholders will get their opportunity not only in the three major forums in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, but through stakeholder bodies consulting their members and through a facility to email or send a letter to addresses given on the strategy page on the Ministry of Economic Development website.

A sceptical Mitchell, however, says “just because we’re consulted doesn’t mean we’ll be listened to”. The prominent IT consultant says on a previous strategy exercise by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology he asked for his name to be removed from the credits, as none of his ideas had made it to the text. “And a lot of other people at the meeting said ‘me too’.”

The IT Association did not return calls enquiring whether it was consulted.

The report has laid out some basic points of view that might prove difficult to change. The priorities, according to a diagram on an early page, are “content, confidence and connection”, embracing the needs and processes of communities, business and government. “Connection” seems to be seen more in terms of allowing people to contribute and access “content” than of direct communication between individuals through technology.

Reference is made to contributing to (and making visible) the “national stock of ideas”, from databases of scientific and technical information to snapshots on family web pages. A “National Content Strategy”, aimed at identifying and indexing important information nationwide, is clearly an already well-formed idea in policymakers’ minds.

While it is a cliché that ICTs, and in particular the internet, promote freer interchange of information, the strategy acknowledges that in many respects technology makes access to information more controllable.

“Making it difficult to balance the rights of intellectual property holders with the rights of those seeking access to information for educational or cultural purposes.”

It acknowledges the approp-riateness of “digital rights management” technologies but is cautious on imposing limits not conferred in older media and trespassing on “fair use”.

“Proposed amendments to the Copyright Act will provide copyright protection for electronic rights management information (ERMI),” the strategy notes, “but specifically not for those functions that track usage.”

The report also alludes to the negative use of patent law “to erect barriers to competition, increasing the cost of doing business and limiting the diffusion of ... innovations”.

“Confidence” means people must learn to trust ICT, and this implies work both in public education and in greater attention to “safety, security and privacy”; people must be protected from the consequences of online scams and criminal activity but businesses need to learn how to make their computer systems more secure and more respectful of the individual’s privacy.

Computer literacy is an important element of this trust, says the strategy. In this respect, Mitchell sees a mistaken slant towards education and training to use IT as an access tool rather than a useful and profitable set of skills in itself: “They seem to have forgotten that there is something called computer science.”

The report mentions the desirability of technical assistance in the community, from people known as “e-riders” or “tech angels”, and public 0800 help lines, but gives no clear suggestions for how such services might be created.

There is a large section on the desirability of broadband communications, but government clearly recognises the chicken-and-egg supply-and-demand situation here.

In discussing government’s role, the report talks about spurring competition and even tweaking regulations to this end, but clearly not as far as local loop unbundling.

“In all cases, commercially sound investment and the effective operation of the market should be the preferred means of supporting regional and sector development initiatives,” it says. “Government regulatory intervention should be used as a last resort only.”

A set of bandwidth “benchmarks” is advanced, which would have even residential and SME customers in rural areas getting 10Mbit/s routinely and 100Mbit/s “on demand” by 2010.

Government suggests in several places that it is crucially important to use ICT to “retain the local connections that affirm our sense of identity, preserving what is unique and local in the face of global brands and the flood of cultural imports”. In this regard it talks about strengthening the IT skills and resources of community groups.

The report identifies a need to boost business use of ICT by identifying sector-relevant uses. “The ICT sector will contribute 10% of New Zealand’s GDP by 2012,” it confidently plans. But there is a need for improvement in “general management capability” in New Zealand to enable the technology to be exploited.

The use of ICTs in the process of democracy and the consequences of applying to an ICT-enriched world laws designed for an older era are given scant attention.

The strategy puts its finger on many of the problems and needs in spurring the use of ICT, but includes a good many obvious “motherhood and apple pie” statements and a large helping of self-congratulation on incentives like Probe and the Growth and Innovation Framework. A more tightly edited document would have been more widely read.

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