I’ve been in New Zealand (via Singapore) now for a few weeks. I came over to be part of the wedding of one of my close friends and if I am honest probably would never have made this rather intimidating trip otherwise. From afar New Zealand always looked like a beautiful country but the land of adventure holidays with people jumping off bridges and getting impaled via mountain biking (Stef!) so given my rather more sedate approach to life I wasn’t sure about it as a destination (apart from the rugby.)
Anyway I am really glad I came over — the wedding in Queenstown was beautiful and those weren’t tears I just got sun cream in my eyes!
Since the wedding I have been in Wellington — the capital city albeit one considerably smaller than sprawling Auckland.
Wellington has been a revelation. While clearly having an identity of its own it really feels like Bristol with a dash of San Francisco thrown in — certainly in the central areas (the suburbs remain a mystery to me.) There are independent coffee shops everywhere, craft beer bars are all over the place, the walls are covered in street art and co-working spaces are popping up here, there and everywhere. Sitting in the hipster bars I’ve overheard (nosey nelly that I am) the familiar patter of start-up founders making their pitches. The comics are bloody expensive though!
TradeMe — the biggest (I think) internet age company down here is based on the waterfront and has embraced the Silicon Valley silliness (slides and grass in the office etc) which is seeding the local digital community alongside the prominence of the public sector and civic tech communities.
While I’ve been here I have been embedded at Statistics NZ — yea I know I’m supposed to be on holiday but this is what I do — and meeting staff around the organisation, giving some talks about my experience at ONS and also meeting colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and Department of Internal Affairs as well.
It has been a really interesting few days.
I always loved those Star Trek episodes where they ended up in an alternate version of their reality. Things seemed similar but not quite the same. Sliders turned it in to a whole show.
Meeting people doing digital and open data here feels a little like one of those episodes. The experiences and stories are similar enough to be familiar but then different enough to be jarring.
Most of the people I have met (and clearly this is a self selecting group as only people interested in a digital, open approach would want to meet me) have the right instincts and ambitions about what transformation needs to look like. What they seem to lack at the moment is that big catalyst moment — like Martha’s report and the subsequent formation of GDS in the UK, the failure and recovery of Healthcare.gov in the US which led to 18f / USDS and the formation of DTO (and recruitment of Paul) in Australia.
Like in the days before GDS in the UK there are pockets of smart, committed digital believers doing what they can but they lack resources and enough of the right kind of digital leadership to support them. Or so it seems after my really quick visit!
I wonder if there is the kind of support network that grew up around Govcamp and Teacamp as well — I must remember to ask — that seeded so much of the change that came to UK digital government and Wellington is such a compact city it should really lend itself to that type of community building.
It seems to me that this is one of those cases where not being the first movers could be of real benefit — the UK, US and Australian digital services have done the hard yards and have provided a roadmap demonstrating what works in a digital transformation sense (and what doesn’t!) and they have provided a whole bunch of open learning and materials to be used/recycled/remixed — there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
What nobody else can provide though is the political capital needed to really give this kind of work the authority and independence it needs to succeed — Francis Maude in the UK with GDS was an enormous factor in their success and the USDS have been openly backed by Obama! This is what makes the difference. The power to say no. The opportunity to do things differently. The backing to be open. All of these require cover and all of them are vital to success.
Thanks to everybody who has taken the time to chat to me and especially Leonie and Tania from StatsNZ who arranged everything for me and did such a fine job keeping me out of trouble!