Opinion article

Australia needs a Chief Technologist to drive our data and digital future

CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento writes that the government should introduce a new Chief Technologist to help Australia become a leading digital nation. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has outlined an ambition for Australia to be a “leading digital nation by 2030” and emphasised the importance of our data and digital, or D&D, agenda. 

The Federal Government backed this ambition in last week’s Budget with a $1.2 billion Digital Economy Strategy, which shows it is firmly focussed on this agenda. 

Australia can no longer afford to be a follower in the digital and technology sphere, and these announcements show the Government is on board.

We must now ensure the public understands and embraces these ambitions, and their expectations are reflected in them.

Australia has recently appointed its seventh technology minister in just eight years. Over that period, technology has changed exponentially. This ministerial musical chairs has caused some to suggest the Federal Government views tech-related issues as a low priority, and that tech portfolios have become ‘parking lots’.

But Australia’s experiences through the COVID-19 pandemic taught us that a focussed and proactive technology agenda will be critical to driving future jobs, investment, growth and prosperity. 

There is much to be gained from our turbocharged take up of digital technologies over the past year, and the new sources of data this has created. They must be harnessed to deliver new opportunities for all Australians.

CEDA supports the Federal Government’s aspiration to become a “leading digital nation”, but there is a lack of clarity around what this means in practice.  Building and maintaining community trust around data and technology is critical to Australia becoming a leading digital nation. But there is some way to go. 

Last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found 59 per cent of Australians thought the pace of technological change was too fast, and 69 per cent thought government didn’t understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them effectively. This year’s Barometer found trust in the tech sector had shown the sharpest drop across all industry sectors in the past 10 years. 

While government leadership is important, the responsibility for building and retaining trust clearly must be shared between the tech sector, business and the community. 

Ensuring trust is considered when technologies are developed means risks can be identified and addressed early. This is more efficient than relying on retrospective regulation that can be hard to enforce when technologies are widespread.    

To address these concerns, Australia should appoint a Chief Technologist – essentially, Australia’s most senior technology expert and advisor.

Establishing clear leadership to align policies and legislation, and to communicate change, was a key focus of the Productivity Commission’s (PC’s) 2017 Data Availability and Use Inquiry. A new national statutory office holder, the Chief Technologist, could do likewise for technology. 

The position 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; and
  • ensure stable stewardship, align efforts and promote greater capability within government on technology issues.

This would require someone with significant expertise, who understands community attitudes, has a deep appreciation of the need for a social license for technology and data and an ability to enable collaboration, rather than competition, across jurisdictions.

In addition to being a consistent voice on technology, and enabling collaboration across levels of government, the Chief Technologist should oversee the establishment of robust and transparent tech assessments that would provide objective advice on emerging technologies, their impacts and related policy implications. 

The transparent, independent advice we are calling for would help to increase understanding of critical data and tech issues among policy makers and the wider community.  

Other nations have already taken a similar approach. Since 2009, the US Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO) has shaped policy and driven the government’s technology agenda. In Canada, the CTO provides government-wide leadership on digital integration. The CTO within the Israel Innovation Authority assesses proposals and formulates policy on companies engaged in R&D. The UK’s Regulatory Horizons Council ensures regulation keeps up with innovation, safeguarding trust and safety.

Our proposal can be achieved through better leveraging existing expertise, consistent processes and more transparency.   

CEDA believes these are urgent and necessary steps if Australia is to be a digital leader by the end of the decade. The COVID-19 experience has shown us that technology can keep our communities safe, reshape how we work and boost productivity.

A pre-COVID study by the CSIRO’s Data61 and AlphaBeta found digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, could be worth $315 billion to the Australian economy by 2028.

Introducing a Chief Technologist and new tech assessments will help us realise those gains.

About the authors

Melinda Cilento

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Melinda Cilento is Chief Executive of CEDA, a company director, economist and experienced senior executive. She is a non-executive director of Australian Unity and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Melinda is also a member of the Parliamentary Budget Office panel of expert advisors.

Melinda was previously a Non-Executive Director with Woodside Petroleum, Commissioner with the Productivity Commission and Deputy CEO and Chief Economist with the Business Council of Australia. Melinda has also previously held senior roles with the Federal Department of Treasury, Invesco and the International Monetary Fund.

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