Aotearoa needs to grow its digital moral fibre

Blog | 2020-09-24 | By: Kirk Mariner
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Guest blog by Kirk Mariner*

Kirk Mariner is calling on Aotearoa to grow its digital moral fibre. To commit to everyone being active, visible and valued members of their communities. To properly building a network of diverse digital champions that are enduring and mandated to play the long game.

That long game is preparing now for the changing face of our population. In 2050, those who are now digitally disadvantaged and marginalised will in population size be the face — and driving force — of Aotearoa.

The following is the wero Kirk leaves with us now that he has left his role with the government’s digital inclusion work programme.

Actively grow our moral fibre — don’t leave it to chance

At least one in five New Zealanders is not engaged in the digital world.

Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve witnessed how people struggled to connect, communicate and access essential services online.

COVID-19 switched a glaring spotlight onto what was already a growing problem, yet gaining recognition very slowly. Being digitally excluded exacerbated social inequalities.

Suddenly, being digitally excluded and what this means to individuals, whānau, schools and businesses became highly visible. It resulted in a huge wave of news stories, COVID-generated reports and opinion pieces, all calling for action on digital exclusion.

I applaud the responses of telcos, NGOs and suppliers who donated or provided discounted services, skills, devices, connections and products, as well as hard-working public servants who went above and beyond to meet the needs of those who were digitally excluded as COVID-19 hit.

COVID-19 has presented a huge opportunity to harness these collective efforts of many for the benefit of everyone — I challenge Govt and industry to capitalise on this.

We need to do more and at pace. Digital is a critical part of making us more resilient. Of honouring everyone being active, visible and valued members of their communities.

We’ve laid the groundwork, now it’s time to commit

We’ve spent four years laying the groundwork through various reports and initiatives, such as:

Finally, Māori, Pasifika, disabled, remote communities, low socio-economic communities, seniors and the unemployed were given a voice to be able to say, “ We’ve been talking about this for years. Now you’ve got the evidence — these are not just our anecdotes…”

In addition, various mechanisms for advocacy and action have been developed, such as:

However, the overall picture is still very disjointed. It’s time to pool resources, collaborate, innovate, look for the opportunities and get things done.

Move from tourist-type leadership to enduring champions and leaders

We currently have tourist-type leadership on the issue of digital inclusion. That is, we visit digital inclusion hot spots, take in the sites, enjoy the views, have a picnic lunch and then go back home. Unfortunately, this type of leadership does not work.

It’s one thing to call for action, it is another to take action that delivers sustainable change. We need uncompromising leaders who not only believe in this but demonstrate this with action.

In my five years working in this space, the digital inclusion superheroes have been few and far between and possibly ahead of their time. Some of these people are in government, community and industry, but carrying this digital inclusion kaupapa on their shoulders can test the durability of the most committed and hardened.

We’ve had four ministers in five years overseeing the evolution of the government’s digital inclusion efforts, and to be honest, it has been hard to get momentum with such change.

The Digital Council for Aotearoa, led by Mitchell Pham has already achieved an impressive level of engagement, is commissioning important research into issues such as trust and trustworthiness with automated decision-making as a use case, and sees digital inclusion as a priority. My hope is they become a loud and trusted voice in this space.

The Digital Government Leadership Group is another forum I think has significant influence to become better coordinated throughout the system. Action being taken on digital inclusion should be a standing item on their agenda. This might focus agency-wide change, particularly in the area of accessibility and leveraging off each other’s investment.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet community, business and NGO leaders who keep us in touch with the real world. Sometimes those of us in Wellington can be a little disrespectful to the insights of these groups. We need to listen to learn, rather than become reactive and defensive. We always think they want money but, actually, first and foremost they want to be heard.

Groups like the NZ Telecommunication Forum can also be influential. Some members often talk about the need to do more in the digital equity space and have started to take action.

Our approach to engaging Māori leaders still needs lots of work. It’s 2020 but we still purvey attitudes that reflect New Zealand’s colonial past. One key observation in my time in my role, is that cultural blindness limits our ability to engage Māori in a meaningful way. It is more than representation on a governance group or kia ora-fication; there are leading Māori authorities on digital inclusion — we must not be afraid to tap into their expertise and experience.

Based on my connections, I know we have the leadership capacity, we just need the kind of people prepared to own it, step up, and be prepared to stay — through good, bad and ugly — for the long-haul.

* This is a guest post highlighting issues that are of interest to the Digital Council, particularly as we start to consider the theme of digital inclusion for our work programme for 2021. The views expressed are not necessarily the views of the Digital Council for Aotearoa.