By Robert Hickson 24/05/2017


NZTech have promoted the creation of a Ministry of the Future in their 2017 Manifesto “New Zealand’s Digital Future“.

As a country, we need to wholeheartedly embrace this change, installing a dedicated Ministry of the Future, and Chief Technology Officer, to consider the implications of change across social, economic, educational and all other areas of policy.

 

I’ve written on this topic previously (and this too), and still think that establishing a Ministry, and associated Minister, is not a great idea.

With respect to NZTech, while I whole heartedly agree for the need to think more about the future, and it is good to see it raised again, this seems to be a poorly thought through goal.

Firstly, they just focus on “technology”. Not surprising given their interest, but that’s too narrow a scope, given all the other changes going on. Reading their Manifesto it seems like they want a technology promotion agency rather than a fully rounded futures and foresight unit; one that is able to look at how a range of different trends and developments could shape our future.

Secondly, as Jonathan Boston explores in his book, there are a range of other models available for improving long term thinking. A Ministry seems to be the least useful approach, since it likely to be constrained by the Minister or political party in charge, and so may be less likely to look at or raise uncomfortable issues.

How effective would a Ministry of the Future be if the portfolio was held by a junior minister, or a minister outside of Cabinet?

To be fair, the manifesto also talks about having a Board, so they aren’t really suggesting a ministry in the current sense. But I’d want to have a broad range of skills and expertise on that, not just folk  from the technology sector.

An agency that reports to parliament, like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, would have more scope to examine challenging issues and make recommendations for change. As I’ve mentioned before, foresight activity will at times be uncomfortable because it will challenge assumptions and the status quo.

Another option is for a foresight team based in a central agency (the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, or the State Services Commission) to help other agencies develop foresight capability and ensure coordinate foresight activities across agencies.

Foresight, like policy, needs to be embedded in the activities of all government agencies not farmed out to a separate body. An agency or group that helps government as a whole think more deeply about the future is required.

But the risk is that we look at old structures to try and address new challenges.