Tuesday, 22 November 2016

In the wake of the recent earthquakes it was probably inevitable that someone would suggest government agencies be shifted out of Wellington to make them safe. It is the sort of populist drivel one can expect at a time like this.

While it might sound good in theory to shift everything out of harm’s way, the problem – which in their typically cavalier way the populists never address – is where to decentralise to in a country with the level of natural risk New Zealand has. Presumably, the 2010-2011 earthquakes rule out Christchurch and its environs. The 1931 earthquake probably rules Napier and Hastings as well. The 1942 Wairarapa earthquake counts against Masterton (even though a Labour Government in the 1970s shifted the Government Printing Office there ever so briefly). Gisborne was severely damaged by a big earthquake in 2007, so it would be off the list. Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth are a little too close to Wellington for comfort. And one certainly could not consider Auckland – the populists say it is too big already because of the immigration flood – and it is ringed by volcanoes bound to erupt some day soon anyway. Tauranga is also in a seismically and volcanically active area, so the only places left in the North Island are Hamilton and Whangarei.

The South Island is not much better. Earthquakes have already ruled out everywhere north and immediately south of Christchurch at least. Queenstown is too busy having fun, which leaves only Dunedin and Invercargill.  The point that from all this is how pointless the argument is, and how facile those who promote it are.

But there is another far more compelling point. Government today is increasingly not about large physical structures and offices – in the digital age the delivery of government services is much more nimble and customer focused. The last concerted attempt to physically relocate government departments out of Wellington was Labour’s half-hearted regional development policy of the 1970s – almost half a century ago, and long since abandoned. In today’s digital environment, the thought of shifting large numbers of people to this location or that to maintain services is redundant.

Already, over 80% of New Zealanders report that they have at least some interaction with government services on-line. Over half of the top ten interactions all citizens have with government are now done on-line, and we are on track for that figure to rise to about 70% in the next year. We already do our banking, pay our insurance and rates, book our travel or a restaurant table on-line and think little of it. Increasingly, we shop on-line, as the growth of Trade Me, E-Bay and Ali Baba demonstrates. We renew our medical prescriptions on-line, and more frequently watch movies or other entertainment on-line, rather than going out to the theatre. Accessing government services on-line is but the next step.

As one of D5 nations (the five most digitally advanced governments in the world) New Zealand is well placed for the transition that is occurring. This month’s D5 Summit in Korea confirmed that New Zealand is at the cutting edge in terms of the digital transformation.

Of course, there will be lessons arising from the recent earthquakes. Some deficiencies in our emergency response have already been revealed, and these need to be rectified. Most important has been the preservation of telecommunications links, so that information can be obtained and disseminated quickly. Digital services are a vital link, and ensuring their preservation is imperative in a time of national emergency.

Now all this will be too difficult to comprehend for the populist who thrives on bar-stool conversations as reality, regardless of the evidence. At a time when people are already on edge because of what has happened, and are therefore seeking reassurance, the intervention of the populists and their simplistic nostalgia is the last thing the country needs.    






1 comment:

  1. I think you've missed the point about decentralising important offices. The current approach whereby almost all the major government departments are located in the general Wellington area means that they are all at risk in an event like an earthquake. Prudence would suggest that key functions be distributed over a number of centres. This involves two things. Firstly, identifying key functions and making sure they are replicated so that failure at one site doesn't stop play. Secondly, thinking carefully about distributing those replicates so that at least one is likely to remain functional. Putting them in other places has other benefits too in terms of local employment.

    I don't think anyone is suggesting that everything be moved to some other city: that simply recreates the problem elsewhere. It is reasonable to ask how any particular agency would function if their building in Wellington was no longer accessible. For example, what has been the effect of the recent earthquake on the ability of IRD or StatisticsNZ to maintain their normal function? And I mean normal function, not some skeleton service cobbled together in response to the specific threat.

    It is entirely foreseeable that such threats will happen even if we don't know exactly where or when. There is a significant literature on resilience, and Government should be thinking about that and taking steps to implement this approach. Far from being drivel, this is simple prudence and good governance.