Australia should appoint a chief technologist: CEDA

Significant expertise and ability to promote collaboration rather than competition are key characteristics for an Australian chief technologist.

Australian Parliament House, Capital Hill, Canberra, Australia
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The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) has released a paper in which it states that the Australian federal government should appoint a chief technologist to increase trust in emerging technologies and provide a link between the government and the public.

In its Technology and Trust Paper 2021, CEDA discusses a global report that found trust in the technology sector continued to fall, while trust in government, media, and nongovernment organisations grew.

“In terms of the trust among the Australian community, the tech sector sits in the middle of the industry pack, having once been a high-trust sector. Whether this represents a shift to a more realistic level of trust in the sector, or a trend towards distrust—‘the more tech we use the less we trust it’—the prospect of eroding trust and social licence presents challenges for policy makers, developers, and users of technology alike,” the report said.

Appointing a national chief technologist

CEDA considers that the appointment of a chief technologist in Australia would provide a balanced, expert voice on the benefits of new technologies and how trust can be safeguarded. It would also provide a place to address community expectations, which would enhance community trust and confidence.

“Such a role would establish clear leadership, align our frameworks, and more directly communicate Australia’s data and technology considerations and decisions to the community,” the report said.

CEDA did not put any names forward, but stated the national chief technologist would:

  • Enable a long-term focus on emerging technologies.
  • Guide the development and implementation of digital and tech strategies.
  • Objectively communicate the opportunities, challenges, and risks of emerging technologies.
  • Provide counsel and act as a reality check on advice that policy makers may be hearing from other sources.
  • Align efforts across jurisdictions, and promote greater capability within government to respond to technology issues.

The chief technologist must understand the public needs to be on board with technology and data, as well as have significant expertise, an understanding of community attitudes, and an ability to enable collaboration, rather than competition, across jurisdictions.

CEDA said having a chief technologist would demonstrate Australia’s commitment to the development and use of tech while maintaining public trust. The appointee would oversee the creation of strong and transparent technology assessments that would provide objective advice on emerging technologies, their potential impacts, and policy implications. CEDA said this would also increase understanding of critical data and tech issues among policy makers and the wider community. “They should also promote Australia’s interests in international forums,” said Melinda Cilento, CEO of CEDA.

CEDA said that ensuring trust is considered throughout the tech development process means potential risks can be identified and addressed early. “Critically applying a “safe, responsible, and sustainable lens” from tech ideation to adoption and use means some risks can be designed out in the process. This is far more efficient than relying on retrospective and often blunt policy and regulation that can be difficult to implement and enforce when technologies are widespread,” the report stated.

Building trust amidst an Australian ministerial “musical chair”

With “disparate initiatives and programs” and a ministerial “musical chair” that saw seven technology ministers appointed over eight years, the Australian government need stability to achieve the goal of making Australia a digital leading nation by 2030, CEDA said.

Cilento said in a statement that it is important to make sure the public understands and accepts these ambitions, and their expectations are reflected in them. “Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants Australia to be a ‘leading digital nation by 2030’,” Cilento said. “What is missing, however, is clarity about what this means, how we get there, and how Australia can manage the opportunities and risks of emerging tech while retaining community support.”

CEDA questioned the constant ministerial change. “This ministerial churn has undermined our ability to build expertise and future capability, and raised doubts about the government’s commitment to this agenda,” the report said.

Australia’s ministers for Industry, Science, and Technology in the past eight years:

  • Christian Porter is the current minister, appointed in March 2021.
  • Karen Andrews was minister from August 2018 to March 2021.
  • Arthur Sinodinos was minister from January to December 2017.
  • Greg Hunt was minister for from July 2016 to January 2017.
  • Christopher Pyne was minister from September 2015 to July 2016.
  • Ian Macfarlane was minister from September 2013 to September 2015.

The road to a leading digital nation

CEDA plans to work with stakeholders from industry and government to build awareness of the importance of a public-interest technology approach and agenda, advance its recommendations, and advocate for their adoption.

Through its Public Interest Technology agenda, in 2021 CEDA will also:

  • Showcase examples of technology and trust in practice, including “tech for good” and government technology (improved service delivery using technology).
  • Use its convening power and diverse membership base and stakeholder connections to explore ways in which it can increase transparency around the state of play regarding responsible use of technology.
  • Understand and share best practice in the governance and use of AI in practice, making sure that commitments and ethics principles are real and apparent to the broader community.
  • Work with members of its advisory committee and broader membership base to discuss strategies to lift the awareness and understanding of these issues among the tech sector, building on collaborative and multidisciplinary processes already in place in some institutions such as CSIRO, the Australian National University, and the University of Technology Sydney.
  • Undertake work on how to build digital literacy and inclusion.

CEDA will continue to advocate for changes to Australia’s migration system and policies to improve access to the skilled migrants Australia needs in digital, data, and tech. “If Australia is to realise its full potential through the ongoing uptake of technology, these skills needs will continue to grow,” the report said.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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