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UFB caught up in mega-ministry uncertainty

22 Mar 2012

I’ve been in Napier this week where Chorus and its subcontractors are busy laying fibre as part of the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) initiative. 

The suburban streets where the work is happening are a mess of trenches, barriers, cones, potholes and traffic detours.

Residents have complained the disruptive construction process has taken longer than promised. But once the job is done streets return to normality with only fresh tarseal to indicate another slice of suburbia has been fibre-enabled and (we hope) future-proofed.

The decision to create the Business, Innovation and Employment mega ministry feels a bit the same. The government has moved in, caused bureaucratic upheaval, promised it’s all for the best and quickly moved on.

ICT Minister Amy Adams’ portfolio, including oversight of the UFB rollout, falls into the BIE orbit. High level supervision for all things BIE-related, however, shifts to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, the architect of the UFB scheme.

In parliament yesterday, Joyce admitted the government could not yet put a figure on the costs of merging the ministries of Economic Development and Science and Innovation, with the departments of Labour and Building and Housing.

"We are confident, given our recent experience with other public sector structural change, that the costs will be able to be met within baselines,” he said.

"We also expect savings through better coordination, better-quality advice, and giving businesses one agency to talk to, and that these will outweigh the costs.”

Reaction to the move has been mixed. It has found support from lobby groups including Business NZ, but has been criticised by others, including the Association of Scientists.

I’ve previously supported industry calls for a shake-up of the way the UFB is being managed, through Crown Fibre Holdings. This may yet happen under the new BIE super structure, although it’s probably slipped down the bureaucratic priority list now that there is a whole lot of inter-departmental integration to work through.

At the end of the day, regardless of what processes and government structures are used to deploy the UFB, it’s the outcome that matters.

Announcing the BIE move, Prime Minister John Key lamented the quality of some government sector technology. Improving the way the public interacts with government through technologies is one of his priorities.

This is a laudable – if somewhat vague – goal. Just as with the suburban upheaval necessary to build the UFB network, short-term pain will be justified if the end result is a brighter technology-based future.

Image: ICT Minister Amy Adams with Prime Minister John Key.