Serious intent required at govt level to steer IT future

Notwithstanding the current economic downturn, New Zealand is generally regarded as having one of the better economies, based on the radical restructuring of the past 13 years.

But opportunities missed are opportunities lost. And we may just have lost a big one to our transtrasman neighbour.

The Australian government, in an announcement on September 17 from the Prime Minister’s Office, has committed itself to a future based on information technology in a way that New Zealand has not articulated. Australia’s new policies are designed — in John Howard’s words — “to better integrate and coordinate online policy formulation and implementation on a whole-of-government basis, aimed at realising Australia’s potential for the 21st century”.

Specifically, Australia will:

q Establish a new National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) as a separate office of Senator Richard Alston’s portfolio. Alston has been name Minister for Communications, the Information Econ-omy and the Arts. (The Minister for Industry, Science and Tourism will continue to have responsibility for industry development and investment issues.)

q Use NOIE to develop, coordinate and overvsee broad policy relating to the regulatory, legal and physical infrastructure environment for online activities, including facilitating electronic commerce, and oversee policies for applying new technology to government administration, information and service provision.

Prime Minister Howard says he will establish a new ministerial council which will have responsibilities for:

q Framing an approach to electronic commerce.

q Formulating a comprehensive regulatory and legal framework for information and online services.

q Further developing a national information and online service strategy.

q Outlining public and private sector roles and priorities for action.

q Continuing to design a whole-of-government blueprint for the Commonwealth as lead user of new information and online technology.

Now, one could argue that the heavy hand of government looms over the information future where industry would better serve. But there’s an issue of leadership here. The Australian government is clear that the future of business lies with electronic commerce and it is signalling to industry that that is the way forward.

Moreover, it seems to be recognising that we’re out of the industrial age and into the knowledge age.

New Zealand features strongly in the World Competitiveness Yearbook 1997, which analyses and ranks the ability of a nation’s environment to sustain the creation of value added.

Our world ranking (listed under assets) is number one in areas such as restructuring, image and labour regulation. We rate third in the development and application of technology (but eighth in technological cooperation).

On the liability side, we are ranked 31st in computer power, 32nd in computers in use and 35th in total expenditure on research and development.

The yearbook takes into account various factors of national environments, defining eight different factors broken down into 250 different criteria which aggregate 40,000 items of data over a five-year period.

By and large, the analysis of New Zealand suggests we have the necessary framework in place to prosper but a fair way to go in a number of specific areas.

The Foresight Project, under the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, has been set up to establish a sense of direction for New Zealand’s future as a knowledge society and to use that to create investment priorities.

In November, there will be a think-tank to create a national view on required competencies and a national strategy for setting priorities.

To quote a recent newsletter from the ministry, the government “must make decisions about the priorities for public-good science and technology that will drive use towards [that] desirable future.”

The think-tank is phase one of the four-phase project, to establish a context for thinking about the future. Phase two will focus on knowledge “foresight”, sector “foresight” and economic evaluation of previous public good science and technology investments. It is expected to be completed around October 1998.

Phase three involves developing a method for assessing prioritites and allocating investment, expected to be competed around March 1999. Phase four is the implementation phase, expected to be completed as new allocations are due to be made from July 2000.

There’s something missing here. It’s all to do with the pace of change, both economic and technological, worldwide. Three years to begin delivering an as-yet-undefined set of directions for the next century seem an inordinately long time.

It’s good that we at least have a project but for it to even remotely address the future there has to be a significant buy-in at Cabinet level. The Communications Minister is closely involved with Project Foresight but even the peripatetic Maurice Williamson can’t be all things technological to all people.

The Australian plans may not necessarily proceed any more quickly than New Zealand’s. But by establishing a ministerial council, the government there has signalled serious intent — both domestically and to international markets — at the highest level. It’s called leadership.

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