Suggestions for Aotearoa New Zealand's Digital Strategy

The government of Aotearoa New Zealand has just put out a request for suggstions on shaping the nation's (i.e. the government's) 'digital strategy'. Their three themes of "trust, inclusion, and growth" are all worthwhile (but only if we commensurately reduce our national dairy footprint in response to the desired tech industry 'growth').

I think, however, that the strategy has forgotten some equally important themes: cultural preservation, national sovereignty, and sustainability.

As I no longer speak on behalf of the NZOSS, I'm making this submission in a personal capacity. I encourage others who think I might be onto something to lend their voices to the process by making their own submissions (you're welcome to borrow from this submission - it's CC-BY-SA licensed for that purpose).

Suggested solutions

Here are my suggested strategic changes to address these themes:

  1. All data stored on behalf of New Zealanders by their government, including health and education materials and data, must be stored onshore in the Aotearoa New Zealand legal jurisdiction, subject soley to Aotearoa New Zealand privacy and data security legislation, and may not have foreign government access, e.g. via subpoena citing the US Cloud Act or US Patriot Act (which removes US-owned multinational corporations or their agents from contention). This would reverse their current, poorly justified practices.
  2. the government must require that software procured is compliant with all relevant open standards, conforming with this definition. More information on New Zealand and open standards is available.
  3. All software development wholly or mostly funded by the taxpayer must be made available under a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) license as specified by the current NZGOAL Software Extension, but with the following modifications:
    1. this licensing is not optional, nor can the requirement be waived at the suppliers request.
    2. the license applied must be a Copyleft license rather than a weak open source license like the MIT license.
  4. The government will introduce a governance group to advise the DIA on strategic IT decisions superseding the GCIO. That governance group will be convened periodically at the DIA's request and will be made up of skilled IT practitioners and strategists working with New Zealand-owned businesses (or freelance) based on recommendations from their peers. These will expressly not include representatives or agents of foreign multinational corporations.
  5. The government will heed recommendations resulting from research conducted for the European Union's own digital strategy, and invest in developing - through internal development teams in conjunction with domestic (New Zealand-owned and operated, employing New Zealanders onshore) suppliers - local solutions for computing problems, leaning heavily on available state-of-the-art FOSS, with the results being FOSS as described above. This will apply where-ever possible, including many aspects of the healthcare and eduation and local government sectors. Only where local industry considers itself insufficiently skilled or specialised to provide a credible alternative.
  6. The government will recognise that FOSS can be vital digital infrastructure and should therefore be funded by the taxpayer (who already depends on it for every cloud service or online transaction among other things) just like roads, the power grid, our education and health systems, and other national strategic elements of our 'Commons' - crucial to commerce, our culture, and our standard of living.
  7. The policy of buying "Commercial Of-The-Shelf" (COTS) software for complex applications will be discontinued, because it is false advertising. The claim of COTS is marketing fluff designed to make naïve procurement officers think the software somehow minimises risk. For complex systems, the 'configuration' that these systems all require is indistinguishable in practice from customised software development, except for the fact that it is proprietary to the vendor, and therefore locks the government customer in.
  8. To avoid embarrassing and wasteful implementation failures, the government will limit the budget of IT development or deployment projects to $10 million. It will approach these projects using a decoupled architecture, with clearly delineated components as described in this advice I gave to government prior to the current IRD project (has there been a recent audit of this system? The last one wasn't auspicous).
  9. The government will be entirely transparent about any and all interaction with private business (i.e. lobbyists and lawyers).
  10. The government will cease to cite "commercial sensitivity" as a reason for not publishing Official Information Act responses on the request of New Zealanders. This Government promised to be transparent and transparency supersedes commercial interests.
  11. The government will never require (implicitly or explicitly) any New Zealand citizen or resident or business to use any specific 3rd party proprietary software to engage with the government or to participate in any democratic processes (e.g respond to GETS tenders, view Select Committee hearings, view Parliamentary debates, register to vote).
  12. Rather than exclusively inhabiting and posting to centralised, proprietary, foreign-owned social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.), the government should adopt an "open, distributed, and local first, closed, centralised, and overseas second, if at all" approach. The NZOSS would, I am sure, be happy to offer pro-bono Fediverse access to all interested public servants and politicians to achieve better access to their employers/constituents (i.e. the People of Aotearoa New Zealand). In fact, they can sign up right now.
  13. Regardless of TRIPS or CPTPPA obligations, the government should, formally and without apology, work preferentially with New Zealand-owned businesses (which are not agents or resellers for foreign multinationals). If this is seen as problematic, the onus is on the Government to explain why we signed up to such agreements, and to extricate us from them. Joining the CPTPPA was a very bad decision.

Correcting past strategic blunders

Stop giving foreign corporations monopolies to exploit

In the past. the government of Aotearoa New Zealand has, through a consistent pattern of strategic and tactical IT procurement and development practices, has systematically undermined the very themes the government has suggested are its top priorities: trust, inclusion, and growth. Instead, the government has actively developed a complete dependence on closed proprietary technologies owned by foreign multinational corporations which give those corporations effective monopolies in almost all areas of IT use by government, including in local government, our education, and our health systems. I have explained this in more detail previously.

IT procurement is broken. Fix it

I have previously explained how the Aotearoa New Zealand government could vastly improve its IT procurement processes and in doing so

  • hugely reduce costs, with the reductions compounding year on year,
  • appreciably increase digital capabilities of the government sector,
  • provide massive incentives for locally trained and employed technologists of greater diversity, and
  • substantially increase the market demand for and competitiveness of the domestic IT and software industries.

My suggestions on fixing procurement were analysed and reviewed New Zealand-based technology pundits and deemed worth pursuing... So was no one ina government IT decison making capacity watching the IT news media? Maybe those folks should do some catching up. Please read the linked post above.

Improve digital education for future generations

And finally, because all of these previous suggestions are largely moot if we don't encourage our learners to develop world-beating digital skills, so here are suggestions for that as well. First: we need to stop doing digital education the way we are now. In fact, our entire approach to technology in schools is failing our tamariki. It's also creating serious unrecognised liability for our schools and, especially, for our volunteer school board members. It doesn't have to be that way.

Our Ministry of Education needs to take its stewardship role seriously and recognise that it does not have the required skills to provide a credible digital education curriculum. It needs to looks beyond the foreign multinationals - to whom they've currently gifted (and we, the taxpayer have paid for, in money and loss of privacy and data sovereignty) a proprietary monopoly over our schools and our tamariki - and actually find the more inclusive, localised, studend led models that have already been proven. They're merely less well marketed than those being pushed relentlessly by trillion dollar US corporations.

There are much better, equitable models (Bring Your Own Device is not equitable policy. It merely amplifies inequity), that are proven to work, and they're built on something that's completely lacking in our schools at the moment: a climate of trust and inclusion. One would hope our education policy makers would realise all this... but clearly, they don't. There's no indication that they've even looked.

If we are to have a fruitful and sustainable digital future, we must do better are providing learning and professional opportunities for our tamariki. The status quo is a bad fit. It immerses our tamariki in digital environments created for corporate professionals in the United States. We need to rebuff the foreign digital colonisers to whom our policy makers have sold us out. If we reassert ourselves, our tamariki will be able to learn and grow in a system that provides them deep, unfettered digital opportunities, that acknowledges and accepts who they are. They will naturally incorporate their cultural needs into their work in ways that the foreign corporate technologies with which we currently indoctrinate them could never do. What is more, the digital wealth, heritage, and self-direction they forge will keep them invested in sustaining the legacy they have created.

Enlightened government policy

We need something new: enlightened government policy. We need decision makers in government who are actual technologists, not the sort of folk who only know about the technology presented to them in dumbed down glossy marketing brochures and unsolicited policy documents from foreign multinational corporations. We need people with deep knowledge who look beyond the marketing, especially related to technology. To have any hope of competing in the future, our 'team of 5 million' needs to be together and given equitable opportunity, and that means with technology, too.

We don't need to jump on international tech trends. No. We need to set them.

That will take a new kind of literacy - a digital literacy - that few if any in our current Government possess. Those politicians need to accept that they have a massive blind spot about technology, and that they need to find help they can trust. As a career technologist, who is (clearly) interested in strategy,  believe our Government needs to create a standing committe of working technologist (and I don't mean entrepreneurs or business people or leaders of IT-related organisations. I mean people work with technology day-in-and-day-out) in New Zealand-owned businesses, universities, and Crown Research Institutions. If they were fairly compensated for their time, and their interests were diverse and broad enough (and do not include foreign multinationals, as they are adept at playing and rigging this game globally), I am sure they would be enthusiastic about helping our country decouple itself from the digital colonists currently occupying it. Such a committee would, I believe, result in the enlightened direction the government and Aotearoa New Zealand need for the digital future, just as you have requested in your brief. 

More important, adopting the suggestions I have made will make Aotearoa New Zealand a global leader rather than a follower, advance the ideals of trust, inclusion, and growth (albeit in a more holistic sense than mere GDP), and will garner the respect of both global technologists and the new generations of technologists here at home. Ideally, these behaviour changes could substantially increase the quality and population of digitally innovators in our country - not consumers of technology, but literate, artful creators. This transition would almost certainly herald a virtuous cycle that would change the way governments around the world engage with technology in a way that respects their constituents and bolsters their culture and sovereignty.

Comments

Great stuff Dave, all very good ideas.

Much appreciated, thanks Tom!

Hi Dave,
Great stuff. just a comment to make.

Please say free software instead of "open source".

The "open source" movement only seems to be about convenience and wanting better software quality and that's about it - a lot of members will use proprietary software instead of free software without a second thought when it's slightly more convenient to do so, which isn't something I support personally.

Sure you'll have to write at least an extra line about how free software isn't about price, but any reader won't misunderstand as to what you mean.

Amended to clarify - thanks Gentoo Install! I sometimes use "open source" when I'm talking to a completely unknown audience, because of the whole 'free as in $0?' dilemma - I've been through it literally thousands of times. But I've changed it to 'FOSS' and linked my use of it to another post that explains FOSS more completely - except where I refer to 'weak open source' licenses which I believe aren't in keeping with the philosophy of Free Software.

Hi Dave

Thanks for an interesting read. Two questions.

First, why are you not pushing back against “growth” as a principle? Until our government, and the world, stops pushing an unqualified growth agenda, humans are on a track of destruction. Growth in what? Power usage for data centres? I believe we need to call out the growth “strategy” at every opportunity.

Second, if we don’t use COTS does that mean we have to develop new software every time? Is this inefficient? Maybe there is something here I am not understanding, like use of existing building blocks.

Cheers
Jane

Thanks for the good questions Jane! I seriously considered pushing back on the 'growth' theme. I did, sort of, by stipulating that growth in IT related activity be offset by reductions in extractive or unsustainable land-based activity like the current dairy industry.

Real growth in IT in the way I've suggested could quite possibly decrease overall IT power requirements as it would allow far more efficient software and system practices than what are currently used.

COTS is another name for 'proprietary software' designed to lock its users into expensive, cumbersome tools (ask people in NZ about the adoption of SAP by councils. Ugh). Usually COTS is a myth in any case: their implementation usually involves extensive "configuration" by the COTS vendor. When does "configuration" really mean "custom software development"? I'd say "every single time".

It's only naïve procurement people who believe they are benefiting from these arrangement when in fact they are paying exorbitant fees to the vendors (corporations like Microsoft, SAP, FastCompany, Oracle, Peoplesoft, Salesforce, etc.) to gift them a local monopoly (incompatible - by design - with any comparable systems, making migrations away eye-wateringly expensive, again, by design - just ask the Auckland super council tech integration team!) that the vendor can exploit (at our cost!) for a generation or more!

This cynical COTS narrative, along with the number of pages you'll get out of your inkjet printer cartridge, is among the most egregious farces in technology.

Rather than buying (always proprietary) COTS, our government should be adhering to the approach I described in this post about the IRD IT rebuild. It amounts to using FOSS components to build new functionality, but without the monopoly for the supplier. This is a fundamental difference.

Interestingly, though, all of the corporations above use FOSS components in their proprietary tools - but they only use components and libraries that are 'weakly open source licensed' as I described in my post. That's because those licenses allow them to effectively proprietarise that open source code, removing it and their improvements from the digital Commons. In other words, they delight in privatising the profit - generated by using the R&D work of unaffiliated FOSS developers who release their code with weak licenses - typically without offering anything in return, namely socialising the costs.

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