Exclusive: New Zealand’s vision for a more inclusive government

By Medha Basu

Interview with Clare Curran, the country’s new Minister for Government Digital Services.

Image: AlchetronCC BY 2.0

While New Zealand is world-leader in digital government services, there are portions of the country without any access to the internet.

“We believe that there are digital divides emerging,” says Clare Curran, New Zealand’s new Minister for Government Digital Services. The divisions run along geography, rural or urban, income, and age, she says.

In the most remote areas, 40% of homes with school-aged children don’t have internet, according to a recent government report, and 33% of Māori did not have internet access, the 2013 census found. “We are describing this as a new measure of poverty,” Curran says.

Digital inclusion

Curran was appointed in October 2017 and is also the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, and Associate Minister for Open Government. Her “vision really is about joined-up policy, rather than operating in silos,” she says, to make sure that New Zealanders are not left behind by the digital economy.

She is appointing a Digital Ministerial Advisory Group whose “number one task will be a digital inclusion strategy”, she adds. The group will build a closer relationship between the civil society, private sector and policymakers in government.

The strategy will “ensure that we are not leaving people behind and that we’re enabling everybody to connect”. It will look at improving affordability, buildings skills and providing access no matter where people live.

In the future, developing the right skills will become even more crucial as automation and artificial intelligence change the nature of jobs and work. “A lot of it came back to education and the importance of getting education right and the fact that we weren't,” Curran says. “We don't have enough teachers who know how to teach technology, let alone actually teach with technology.”

From 1 January this year, school graduates will get a free year of tertiary education, the government has announced. Adults who have never gone to university will also qualify for the free education. In the next 4-5 years, this will increase to three years of free education, Curran added.

Digital bill of rights

The Minister is leading work for a digital bill of rights, which will look at issues of privacy, freedom of expression and digital governance. “What is the ethical way of collecting and utilizing people's data; where is the privacy for people's individual data; and what kind of ownership do people have over their data?,” Curran asks.

New Zealand will review its framework for data governance, she adds. It will look at how data is collect through different agencies; how the data is shared, used and controlled; and to what degree it should be anonymised.

One area for careful consideration, for instance, is the Social Investment Unit that was set up last year, which uses analytics to target spending on social services. The use of data to target vulnerable citizens has “raised a lot of ethical issues”.

Curran will advocate for “a much greater emphasis on data governance” in the social investment strategy, she says. New Zealand will need to “make sure that data can be useful, and for a social purpose, but doesn't have any unintended consequences of stigmatising people and society and creating more social issues”.

She will also look to regulate the private sector’s use of data to target customers. Large companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have become “vacuum cleaners of data”, she says. They “raise issues around how transparent are the algorithms that are collecting your data, and the things that you may want to have more control over”, she says. Citizens should at least have more idea of what is being collected and how it is being collected, she adds.

More personalised services to come

New Zealand’s government digital service strategy has focused on grouping services around key life events, and this will continue to be the approach over the coming year. Two of these for the birth of a child and death of a family member were launched in 2017.

A new service for victims of crime is currently in pilot, Curran says. It is “essentially supporting people who have been victims of crime and to get updates, advice, connect them to other service providers”, she adds.

There will also be a new service to assist people when they become senior citizens at 65. “These are moments in life when you have a specific set of needs and questions, and information and changes that need to be made,” Curran says. Rather than the citizen going to various government departments, all of the related services and information will be brought to the citizens at the time that they need them.

Greater influence

There will be some structural changes to New Zealand’s digital government portfolio to bring about these changes.
One of the Minister’s first steps was to create the role of a Chief Technology Officer for the government as a whole. The CTO will drive a “a joined up vision that looks at the risks and pitfalls and challenges that our society faces with emerging technologies, but also how we can be supporting an innovation culture at the same time,” she says.

Broader restructuring may also be required. New Zealand’s digital portfolio is currently split between two organisations - the Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. “It really does need to be much more defined and have more influence,” she says. “My job is to try to pull all of that stuff together, and evolve government and the agencies of government into a much more focused and fit for purpose entity,” she adds.

New Zealand has achieved a great deal in building world-class digital services. But now it needs to ensure everyone can access them.