Derek Handley and the CTO saga that refuses to die

The aborted appointment of Derek Handley to the government’s CTO role continues to drag on – the latest installment is a folder of communications between himself, Clare Curran and Jacinda Ardern.

Derek Handley has released a cache of communications relating to his botched appointment as the government’s CTO which detail the nature of the process, and its sudden derailing in late August. Accompanying these is a further statement which expresses a severe disappointment with his experience through the process, noting “to this day, I have still not had any communication from the government explaining why the role which I was appointed to was withdrawn.

“Neither have I heard personally from Minister Hipkins, Minister Woods or the Prime Minister during this challenging time.”

He supplies a range of texts and emails between himself and both former digital communications minister Clare Curran, and prime minister Jacinda Ardern. In addition to previously disclosed Twitter messages, it shows three pages of texts spanning March through August between Curran and Handley. They suggest a more friendly relationship than has previously been suggested, with Handley discussing his reading list (“the book Steve Jobs gave everybody at his funeral” Death of a Yogi), and offers to “appear on Dancing with the Stars or “compose an epic poem in the style of the Iliad or Odyssee [sic]” if it helps secure the role. For her part Curran asks him to “demonstrate zen like patience for a few more days”, along with some emoji.

By August Handley has become established as the preferred candidate, and he’s advised of this on the 8th, subject to the formality of approval from the appointments committee and cabinet later in the month. Handley texts Curran talking of his “immense privilege” at having been selected. Curran replies that having a CTO “feels a bit like Star Trek”.

They discuss conflicts, media management and swap links. On August 17 he was informed his appointment would be announced on August 23rd, and communications between the pair cease. Three days later Curran’s office became aware of the February meeting between the pair, the first crack which would lead to his eventual dumping from the job, and a $107,000 payment without ever having accepted the role.

His communications with Ardern are sparser, yet while they don’t quite contradict her account from parliament last week, they do suggest a kind of friendship. He first texts on April 24, complimenting her performance on her trip to Europe and informing her that he will be returning to New Zealand for good. “How do we figure out how I can best serve you and New Zealand? I have a lot of ideas and think I can be very useful,” he writes, without explicitly referring to the CTO role – though we know from communications with Curran he is already very interested.

His admission that he was already moving home in these texts appears to contradict the implication in his LinkedIn post of September 10 that his return to New Zealand was connected to the role. He talked of his experience “combined with a deep desire to return home to New Zealand to serve our country in some capacity” as being what motivated his application.

One big question which comes out of this: in addition to the three months salary he received, he was also paid $7,000 in costs. Given that he acknowledges that his return was already in motion, what were his costs made up of?

Via a spokesperson, Handley told the Spinoff that the “set-up expenses” clause covered “costs associated with getting legal and professional advice related to the CTO contract and commencement of the role” and was “never intended or discussed to be related to any sort of relocation costs”.

The release itself is interesting, too. It arrived in my inbox at 5am, from his spokesperson, with a statement called On Being Open and Transparent About the NZ CTO Role“. The statement was somewhat more transparent for some: Hamish Fletcher’s report which featured on the front page of the Herald was also published online at 5am, along with an exclusive video which draws on the content of the emails and texts. “Derek chose to give one interview and chose the Herald. He talks a lot about open and transparent government in the video and story on the Herald.”

Image: Toby Manhire

Handley projects a victimhood throughout his statement, saying the silence from the relevant ministers is “disappointing from a government that highlights compassion and kindness as hallmarks of their leadership.” He also affects a form of equanimity, though the timing of its release suggests other motives. Ardern is currently in New York, until recently his home, appearing on talk shows and meeting world leaders. He will have been abundantly aware of what this release would do as far as poisoning that shining moment goes.

Speaking to reporters in New York, the prime minister said she had not misled parliament over her exchanges with Handley. “And for the fact that Mr Handley went through this process and did not eventually lead to taking on the role, for that we do owe him an apology,” she said.

As much banal detail as the saga has revealed, it does not appear over quite yet. Precisely what triggered the canceling of his appointment is still not known for certain – whether it was the reaction of other tech figures or the political calculus of what his correspondence with Curran and Ardern would suggest about the process. Until that is revealed the story of Handley and his botched appointment to the CTO role appears likely to drag on.


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