Red Alert

Taking charge of our productivity

Posted by on October 5th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about New Zealand’s productivity. And I’m worried.

We have a productivity taskforce set up by the National Government and led by the ignominious Don Brash. It’s likely to come up with an argument for economic growth which is about selling our state assets and keeping wages down, or cutting jobs to create more profits. Because that’s what the conservative side of politics believes productivity to be. Gordon Campbell’s piece on this a couple of months ago is worth reading.

Labour, on the other hand, is an enabler. We want economic growth. We don’t want it at the cost of creating greater gaps in our society between those on no income and those who do have one.

Neither do we want to create greater gaps between those on low  and higher incomes, and those who own businesses and those who don’t. We also truly want to take account of the impact of our growth policies on the well-being of our environment.

We know that real wages need to rise in order for people to be able to make ends meet, feel as if they’re keeping their heads above water and get a bit ahead. And we believe that most people already work pretty hard, and making them feel they should work longer, harder and possibly for less pay is not a solution.

And while we want economic growth, we want it to benefit all of New Zealand, not just a few. Prosperity and public good.

So here’s three ideas to put into the mix which are about thinking creatively and saving money and time without  promoting lower labour costs in a way that will adversely affect those who earn wages. Not only good for business and innovation, but good for building stronger communities, our skill levels and caring a bit more for our environment.

They’re all in the realm of e-solutions, which is not only my portfolio area, it’s where we, as a nation, have the ability to be really creative about our future. If we’re prepared to think outside the square.

I’ll list them, then I’ll expand on each one in a later post. Maybe Don’s productivity taskforce might take note.

1. Open government. In particular open software.

The NZ Government currently spends around $2 billion a year on IT, in software, hardware and all the services that go with it.  We have lots of government websites, but we don’t have an open source policy and we don’t practice open government. We have attempted to harmonise govt IT and networking through the previous Labour Govt’s digital strategy. Much of that appears to have been ditched. There’s an awful lot more work to do in this area.

The US government, under Obama, has made a commitment to cut its total IT spend of $76 billion by between 50% and 80% by driving its systems into open source and cloud computing.

Could we save $1 billion?

2. Working from home. Telework

Ten year’s ago, a study funded by the Auckland Regional Council found that spending $3 million on an awareness raising programme about the benefits of telework targeting employers, could take 10% of Auckland’s traffic off the roads. There’s research overseas demonstrating that you can save up to 15% in workplace productivity and lower overheads through flexible arrangements with your employees working from home. And then there’s the greenhouse gas savings, and the boost to local communities. Let alone the social capital through having more parents at home, more often.

We’re not even collecting data in NZ for the number of people already working from home! Let alone those who’d like to. Are enough employers even thinking about it as an option?

3. Saving time. Improving our basic computer skills

Consider this. The UK National Health Service employs 1.2 million people. I’m told they recently put 100,000 staff through a programme to upgrade their basic computer skills, called the International Computer Driver’s Licence (ICDL). This is a reputable programme, developed through the European Union.

An analysis of its effectiveness showed they’d saved 38 mins/day for each employee. Or four weeks per person per year. Crikey! And that was because each staff member knew how to work better with the software they used every day at work and how to solve their own problems.

Not rocket science. How many of you readers are self taught on your computers? How often do you run into issues that frustrate you and waste time? Lianne Dalziel’s going to post more about this soon.

This course and other good ideas are available in New Zealand. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to utilise it broadly and for government to back it?

Oh, and just so you’re clear. There’s many other ways to increase productivity in a constructive way without disadvantaging large tracts of our society and selling off our silver to overseas interests.

Many of my colleagues have more knowledge on this than me. Monetary policy, boosting our savings, raising real wages. Boosting our productive economy… so much more to say…

Isn’t it time to take charge of our own productivity?

23 Responses to “Taking charge of our productivity”

  1. Spud says:

    I like the ideas you put up :-) Though I don’t think working from home is for everyone, some people would go nuts working and living at the same place and need the change of environment. As for the CO2 thing, it’s a pity we don’t have electric cars etc, it is 2009 :-(

  2. jfk says:

    Some great ideas Clare – especially Teleworking. With today’s decent broadband services (at least in the main cities) we at least have a great opportunity to balance work and family and be more productive by reducing travel time and lessening our carbon footprint.

  3. Glynn says:

    Perhaps we need to launch the equivalent movement to to raise the benefits of using free and open source software?

  4. This list is a good start Claire. Two quick points I’d like to make.

    1. (1) should really include Open Govt Data as well – govt has a lot of valuable data, and it is only now just starting to realise the potential of releasing the data (that taxpayers have paid for) so that new and interesting uses can be made of it. This may even allow the creation of new products and online services that are not possible now because the data is locked up behind government agency, or SOE ‘walls’. Case in point – post codes in New Zealand would be far more useful and valuable to businesses and organisations if NZ Post didn’t maintain a tight hold on this data, and charge for it. Post codes are really a fundamental dataset for the country that should be openly released for the benefit of all at no charge. I would posit that there is greater value to be obtained in government making more taxpayer-funded data freely available, than making savings on open source software alone.

    2. NZ in general stands to benefit from increased utilisation of open source software – it means we transfer less wealth back to the US (many large software companies are based there – Microsoft, Apple, IBM etc) and at the same time we would build up more local capacity and capability – keeping the skills and profits from these businesses local.

  5. Clare Curran says:

    Agree with you in principle Gavin on point 2, just needed more space to elaborate. I’m all for building more local capacity and capability. We do need a balance though and shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    Would have to have a closer look at Point 1.

    Keep commenting though and you should see my previous posts on open source and open govt.

  6. Vik Olliver says:

    Excellent idea. Plus the Open Source applications used by the government can be given freely to the people. So an Open Source billing system or telephone exchange, for instance, could be re-used by New Zealand companies at no cost.

    As it happens my employer – Catalyst IT – is sufficiently forward-thinking to allow me to telework, and I do so. That’s my contribution to keeping the North Western Motorway clear.

    I’m not so keen on the ICDL. The IT field evolves quickly, and what people get certified on now will be very different to what they’re using in 5 years time.

    Vik :v)

  7. Nevyn says:

    The ICDL is a step in the right direction but shouldn’t be something we aspire to. The education in I.T. has to address our needs and should cover not just the use of computers but also the effects of choices.

    When talking to someone recently about posting information she had suggested a blogging site and asked what I thought. I said to her I’d have to have a look and read the terms and conditions. She looked at me as if I was wearing a tinfoil hat. I went on to ask her the important questions:

    * Who owns the data once you’ve posted it to their site?

    * If you were to change your mind on the service in a years time, are there any options for exporting that data for use with another service?

    * Can you remove that data if/when you move services?

    I believe there’s probably more social education needed in Computers than just the technical…

  8. Sufi Safari says:

    Clare it really concerns me that you seem to be conflating Open Government and Open Source. Your response to Gavin highlights this concern further. Government use of open source software does not in and of itself equate to Open Government. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but through all of your posts on the issue, you seem to me to be more excited about free software than you are about free information.

    The principles of Open Government are not the same as the principles that should be employed by Government organisations when considering Open Source vs proprietary software.

    As a point in case, could you be more clear about what you see needing improvement when you say:

    We have lots of government websites, but we don’t have an open source policy and we don’t practice open government.

    I don’t disagree that there could be significant improvement across the NZ government’s web presence, but I feel like you’re throwing buzzwords at the problem without really giving us any indication of how you or your party believe things should evolve.

    Please don’t get me wrong Clare, I think it is awesome that you are engaged in these ideas. I just think it would be a real pity if you were engaged in them without really understanding them.

  9. Jeremy Harris says:

    Increase producivity..?

    Introduce compulsary Kiwisaver at 9% of wages
    Eliminate tax on savings
    Reduce PIE tax to 20%
    Introduce capital gains tax and GST on rent and mortgage
    Shamelessly copy French Health System
    Eliminate WFF and instead introduce a tax free threshold
    Reduce sustainable business tax to 20%
    Introduce three tax rates 10%, 20% and 30%

    How about dealing with the structural problems in our economy; lack of savings, lack of investment in export businesses, lack of R and D and over-investment in property before tinkering at the edges..?

    @spud, electric cars are not the answer, 40% of a vehicles life’s emissions are during it’s production, electrical cars batteries contain incredibly harmful chemicals for the environment, massive increases in electricity use if met by fossil fueled power plants simply move emmissions, changing from fossil fueled to electric cars does nothing for congestion, as cars get more efficient there will be less money from fuel tax for road construction and maintanance… In a world where peak oil and climate change pricing (whether you believe climate change is real or not, emmissions will be charged for in future) the only economical solution is public transport and in particular electrically driven public transport whose power use is offset by greater energy efficiency…

  10. Brenda says:

    Not sure on the telecommuting = cost savings – i’ve worked from home alot in the last months of my pregnancy, and the energy bills from heating rooms i’m using each day is not small. Everyone in one office at least means much less space to heat and light.

  11. Spud says:

    @Jeremy – thanks I didn’t know about all the pitfalls that come with electric cars, except the power generation part. :-)

    I still think that we need alternative energy to power private vehicles, clean technology. While I embrace public transport and use it regularly, I have a concern that people are going to gradually lose their personal liberties in a effort to reduce co2. Something that I believe could be avoided with more advanced technology.

    @Brenda – I agree about the heating and lighting. Also some people have trouble working at home because they can’t separate their work from their domestic life and can’t switch off. Also, people may miss out socially if they can’t be with colleagues.

  12. Sam Vilain says:

    Labour, on the other hand, is an enabler. We want economic growth. We don’t want it at the cost of creating greater gaps in our society between those on no income and those who do have one.

    There’s a great way to do this – consider using a GPI instead of GDP when considering growth, while allows for growth of multiple types of capitol – resources, equipment, social stability etc. The Auckland Regional Council are already doing so.

  13. Jeremy Harris says:

    @spud: I’m a National Party member (transport policy is a point of disagreement) so entreprenuers will be part of the transport solution going forward, hydrogen fuel cells are more likely than electrically driven vehicles as rare earth metals used in magents in electric cars are already starting to become rare (or is that rarer 😉 there are literally hundreds of reasons why electric cars currently look like they will become like rotary engined vehicles, curious inventions we’ll have mixed in with mainstream vehicles…

    From a producivity standpoint NZ’s transport profile leaves us exposed going forward, we are one of (if not the most) car and truck dependent first world nations, a small market at the end of a long logistical train where oil is produced/refined in quantities we use…

  14. Clare Curran says:

    @Sufi I certainly have a lot of learnign to do, but I don’t equate open source and open government with open software. Sorry if you keep getting that impression. But I think there’s a lot to be discussed in the open software area. As, with open government and this blog, Red Alert, is a demonstration of Labour’s willingness to engage openly and show we don’t just pay lipservice to these ideas. Yes it’s just a start. And there’s not much room in a blog post. But keep reading me.

    @Jeremy. Thanks for posting. Absolutely agree that NZ’s transport profile leaves us exposed with its reliance on trucks and cars. But I think you shouldn’t be so dismissive of electric cars, we have to make a change and we have to work with what’s there and possible right now. Maybe they’ll be short-lived. But lets’s stop our reliance on fossil fuels.
    And my colleagues, as I’ve said, have mroe to say on productivity generally. This is me kicking things off with a few ideas.

  15. Clare Curran says:

    @Brenda. I worked from home for six years in New Zealand, and around a year in Australia. There’s certainly pros and cons for the person working from home. Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons, especially if you’ve got kids.
    Another difference was that I worked for myself.

    The point I was making is that from the employer’s point of view, investigating the benefits of having a certain number of employees work from home, even for part of the time, could have enormous cost savings to their business, let alone the savings to the environment and the boost to communities.

  16. Jeremy Harris says:

    My pleasure Clare, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the issue of electric cars, in my opinion hybrids and small diesels are a better interim step while we wait for a truly revolutionary solution whether it be algae biofuels or hydrogen fuel cell technology…

    We can also go back to how we used to live in cities at the turn of the 19th century, living along electrically based public transport lines and all working in our CBD’s… It seemed to me to be a pretty people friendly way to live, catching light rail with your neighbour into the city, reading the paper on the way… The family car was for the holiday or the weekend shop not every trip everywhere… Copenhagen has embraced this philosophy and it’s residents love it, a city built for people not cars, imagine…

  17. Draco T Bastard says:

    hydrogen fuel cells are more likely than electrically driven vehicles

    Hydrogen runs a net energy loss and is nearly impossible to store. This means that the hydrogen for fuel cells needs to be stored as something else. That something else is usually hydrocarbons and we’re running out of that (and, no, the methane from cows isn’t enough to replace what we get from out of the ground). A hydrogen fuel cell doesn’t change the fact that the vehicle would still be an electric vehicle either.

    Basically, batteries and, at some point in the future, high capacity capacitors, are a better and more efficient option. As for the electricity generation, NZ has a huge potential for renewable sources – wind, wave and hydro.

    even for part of the time, could have enormous cost savings to their business

    Except that the added costs for the employee would have to met from the business. Nothing is free. This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be better in some cases but that the pros and cons need to be weighed up from all perspectives.

    While I embrace public transport and use it regularly, I have a concern that people are going to gradually lose their personal liberties in a effort to reduce co2.

    Why would they lose their liberties? Public transport isn’t efficient everywhere so personal transport would still exist it would just be used less.

    I think the thread went a bit off topic :p

  18. Spud says:

    @Jeremy – I mostly like your idea, but what about people with mobility issues who need private transport and people who need to use their cars as part of their jobs?

    Hybrids do sound like a good idea, and other kinds of clean vehicles. :-)

  19. Sufi Safari says:

    Thanks Clare, that is somewhat reassuring.
    Can I suggest that to avoid confusion, you might want to tighten up your use of terms?
    For example, open source in common usage and particularly when you’re addressing matters of technology is related to software and is distinct from open source governance or open politics which may share philosophical underpinnings, but are not the same movement. I think if you’re going to lead or orchestrate a discourse on these issues, it’s going to be important to be precise about the ideas you’re addressing.
    Check out:

  20. Jeremy Harris says:

    @Draco, yes hydrogen fuel cells technology does have problems… A method of conversion is a lot more likely than building huge numbers of electic vehicles, the problems with which are seemingly endless…

    This technology could be a possiblity:

    Basically growing our own “oil”…

    Also our renewable energy reserves are overstated in their environmental friendliness, wind power creates problems on the ground, is unsightly, hydro destroys rivers and due to habitat destruction and subsequent rotting of organic matter releases otherwise stored carbon, both of these are dependent on weather, patterns which may be changing due to climate change…

    Wave power is in it’s early development…

    The answer is most likely Geothermal for NZ and utilising this type of new technology:

    Honestly, we need to deal with our structural economic problems and become world leaders in the types of technology I’ve pointed out here if we want to climb the OECD rankings ever again, I’m not sure if Labour or National has the courage to do this… They haven’t over the last decade…

  21. […] mixture of good and bad in Clare Curran’s blog on productivity: We have a productivity taskforce set up by the National Government and led by the […]

  22. Typical says:

    Take a week off to consider whether you want to comment on this blog and if you come back neither troll nor abuse. Trevor

  23. Sufi Safari says:

    Clare I’ve just come across an article which provides a interesting perspective on the risks of Open Government. I’m not sure I’m as pessimistic, but I thought you might find it interesting.