New Zealand’s digital chief Tim Occleshaw steps down

By on 23/09/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Tim Occleshaw has been credited with overseeing the delivery of cross-government ICT strategy, helping build sector resilience through uptake in common capabilities and developing system-wide standards

Tim Occleshaw, a key player in New Zealand’s efforts to transform its digital services, has announced that he will be leaving the civil service in November. “It will be seven years in the job in December, and while I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved – particularly New Zealand being deemed globally as a leading digital government – I think it’s time for someone else to lead this group into its next steps,” Occleshaw told CIO New Zealand.

As deputy government chief digital officer and deputy chief executive for service and system transformation at New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs, Occleshaw has led the centre of government’s work to improve digital capabilities, create cross-government policies and rebuild services. His boss Paul James, the Department of Internal Affairs’ chief executive and government chief digital officer for New Zealand, told GGF last Friday: “I feel sad about him leaving because he’s made a good contribution and his are big shoes to fill. But Tim feels like it’s time for someone else to come in and provide new leads. He’s leaving us in good shape and in good heart.”  

Speaking at GGF’s Digital Summit – which attracted 28 digital leaders from 16 countries to London for informal discussions on the key issues around digital – James credited Occleshaw with creating the first Strategy for Digital Public Service, which is due to be presented to Cabinet next month.

“That will be a real achievement, to have overseen the next iteration of strategy for digital government,” he told GGF. “One of Tim’s other key contributions has been the development of a number of common capabilities for New Zealand government agencies. That’s really helped with standardisation and issues around redundancy in agency ICT – it’s been hugely successful.” 

Occleshaw’s legacy

In a January interview with Global Government Forum, Occleshaw spoke about the approach adopted by the Office of the Government Chief Digital Officer (OGCDO) – which focused on working with agencies on their digital programmes, rather than dictating what should be done from the centre.

“It’s better to paint a picture of the desired vision, and to have agencies wanting to be on board, as opposed to us constantly trying to fight them or impose controls that they’ll have all sorts of resourceful ways to resist if they wish,” he said.

Ministers had asked Occleshaw and his colleagues whether they wanted increased powers, he said, potentially including the right to veto digital investments they didn’t think were on the right track – but they’d declined. He’d feared that such powers would “mess up accountabilities, and it would set us up to be battling agencies fairly frequently”, he said, adding that “it was our choice to be on the field of play with the agencies, rather than shouting instructions from the sidelines”.

James pointed to some of Occleshaw’s other achievements, including developments in “life event services” such as Smart Start: an integrated digital resource which provides step-by-step information and support to help new parents access the right services. “Things like that stand out,” James said.  

He also highlighted Occleshaw’s contribution to the work that led New Zealand to be part of the D5 (now D9), a network of the world’s most advanced digital nations.

Culture shift

In his interview with GGF earlier this year, Occleshaw said he believes what is needed for governments to develop their digital agendas is culture change and a shift away from “legacy thinking”. One of the challenges, he said, is getting people with the right skills into the civil service – particularly AI specialists – and hiring “fewer of the more traditional leaders who want to build and control things themselves, and more digitally-savvy people who think about outcomes for the nation”.

Another challenge, he said, is keeping up with the pace of innovation and change: “And I don’t mean from a tech perspective; I mean breaking free of legacy thinking. That means Agile policies and settings, and governance and funding models that can encourage innovation whilst being mindful of the human aspect – protecting people’s rights. So the biggest challenge is keeping up with that in a way that fosters innovation and promotes the digital economy, but keeps the government policy social aspect at the forefront.”

Next steps?

Occleshaw joined government after a career in the private sector, latterly as head of information technology for New Zealand at ANZ Bank. In 2004 he became chief information officer at the Ministry of Social Development, later taking a job as deputy commissioner, information, design and systems at the Inland Revenue Department. He moved to the Department of Internal Affairs in 2012, where he has been responsible for New Zealand’s cross-government digital operation.

He’ll leave his post as deputy chief executive at the Department of Internal Affairs on 1 November, before travelling to Uruguay to represent New Zealand at the D9 meeting. His last day in office as deputy government chief digital officer will be 18 November. Occleshaw has said that he has no plans as to what he will do next, but that he will be taking a break over the summer and spending more time with his family.

James told GGF that he’s drawing up a job description, and that recruitment for Occleshaw’s replacement will begin in October. As for what’s next for New Zealand’s digital evolution, he said: “We are hoping to finalise and make public around November our Strategy for Digital Public Service – that will set out the direction for our digital agenda and the key priorities going forward.”   

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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