Tech and Public Policy

Tech and Congress

I’d like to start this post as many of them start, talking about Facebook. I think most of us remember the congressional hearing with good ol’ Mark Zuckerberg. Which resulted in the fantastic GIF below when senator Warren Hatch asked: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your services”. His reply:

This hearing and the others (like when Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, had to explain to rep Steven King that iPhone was made by another company) have really made me question the technical literacy of many of our fearless leaders. In hindsight, I should have had lower expectations. My mom is still running Windows Vista, My dad just upgraded from his iPhone 4 two months ago, and my aunt still has a flip phone (all of them being a part of the same generational cohort as the average congress-person).

screenshot-10-e1556507126521.png

I had never actually looked at the demographics of Congress before, and I’ve got to say there are some interesting bits of trivia in there. For example, did you know there are currently 8 ordained ministers and 26 farmers/ranchers in our current Congress? There is also, however, some information that could be considered worrisome, particularly when it comes to technology. Currently, in Congress, there are 8 former software executives (6 in the House, 2 in the Senate). That’s to say out of the 541 people we entrust to govern our country only 1.48% of them have domain-specific knowledge regarding technology. This, to me, seems startlingly low especially considering that the US consumer tech sector alone is responsible for 5.2% of GDP. This isn’t to say that the rest of Congress is technologically illiterate, but I believe it’s reasonable to say most don’t really know what’s happening with technology and couldn’t explain the difference between a bit and a byte, let alone the benefits of Blockchain.

A Eunicorn of a country

So what are some examples of governments who do understand technology? I think most of us can agree that Europe has seemingly had a more proactive stance when it comes to regulating technology companies. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a huge step in the philosophical data privacy battle (despite the fact that you now have to click annoying buttons that inform you when a website is using cookies). The EU has also been seemingly one of the few governments to take a stand against tech monopolies, fining Google $1.7 billion for unfair advertising.

To find a specific country that’s doing a great job combining digital innovations with governance you’d need to look no further than the beautiful country of Estonia. With a population smaller than San Diego, blistering winters that include only 3 hours of sunshine, and a GDP per capita a third of the US’s, you might wonder how this small country became a shining example of technical literacy. The answer seems to be vision, more than anything else.

Estonia was a state of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it claimed its independence. Shortly after, their Prime Minister Mart Laar helped modernize the countries economy, setting the way for innovation that would follow. This included the introduction of intellectual property laws, a fully electronic stock exchange, and a switch from the Russian ruble to its own currency, the kroon. The plunge into tech also began at this time, with the creation of their digital phone system, the successful installation of internet access into every school in the country (something the US hasn’t even accomplished), and the founding of the e-Governance Academy.

This focus on innovation continued steadily, with the introduction of i-Voting, e-Tax Board, e-Business, e-Banking, e-Ticket, and e-School. Today, Estonia residents have all of their important documents ready for them electronically, whether its information for education, medical history, taxes, or pet vaccinations its all available in one portal and secured using a distributed system (think blockchain) and a physical card. Their guiding principal being “once only”, meaning you enter information one time and it’s stored in the system reducing bureaucracy immensely. Digitizing these processes not only saves their citizens time and frustration, but it also saves the country 2% of their GDP in salaries and expenses. All of this is due to a country-wide commitment to innovation and a vision to improve the lives of Estonians with the use of technology.

None of these innovations would have been possible without the hard work of thousands of tech-savvy people who have chosen to work for the government, many of them inspired by the idea of being a part of something big. I think a quote from a New Yorker article[1] I found sums it up pretty well.

“If someone had asked me, three years ago, if I could imagine myself working for the government, I would have said, ‘Fuck no,’ ” Ott Vatter, who had sold his own business, told me. “But I decided that I could go to the U.S. at any point,

 and work in an average job at a private company. This is so much bigger.”

I think this quote illustrates a fundamental difference between Estonia and the US. For us, working for the government sounds dull and monotonous, but for Estonians, it’s the equivalent of working for Google or Facebook. This presents a chicken and the egg problem; innovative tech-savvy people won’t work for the government because of the lack of innovation, which is due, at least in part, to lack of innovative tech-savvy people.

Terms of Service

A few weeks ago we had a speaker in my machine learning class. He was a relatively young guy, maybe early to mid-’30s with his Ph.D. in comp-sci. What I found really interesting was his decision to go work for the city of Boston after graduating. He spent 3 years there working on creating a central data store for the city. This was in no way ground-breaking stuff. In fact, it probably should have been done 20 years ago, but it simply hadn’t. He probably wasn’t paid as well as he could have been and he probably wasn’t given free massages and laundry like he would have gotten at a Silicon-Valley startup, but the work he did was important and will help improve the lives of ~690K people in Boston. This brings me to the point of this whole article: We need more tech-savvy people in government, and if not you, then who?

We’ve got a load of technical debt to repay, and the only way to do that is with the vision and hard-work of tech nerds. Think of it as a tour of service. Sacrifice a few years to better improve the state of people throughout your community. Whether it’s working in a local municipality or serving as a congressperson who actually understands the business model of an online platform, the only way to improve the technological state of the country is to do the work. If done right, maybe the next generation can say they ‘can always work an average job at a private company’ and that working for the government is ‘so much bigger’.

 

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/18/estonia-the-digital-republic

4 comments

  1. Nice post! One of the challenges of tech in government is that the organizational structures aren’t really well suited to support the type of innovation necessary. I confess that I have often thought whether a form of government developed in the 1700’s can really adapt to the technological reality of today.

  2. You make such a compelling argument! Just last month I heard the former Governor of Connecticut speak here at BC, and he gave the advice that you can make a difference in your local, state, or national government without holding public office; bringing tech to the government is definitely a way to do that. The question is will the government make tech enough of priority to attract tech-savvy new employees. Like you said, salary is often a big driver in the tech-industry, so people like your speaker who are willing to sacrifice a Silicon Valley salary are probably rare. We in IS6621 know it would definitely be a worth-while investment for the government to offer higher salaries to techies, but as always, the government lags behind. I think the only hope we have for a government epiphany about this is that unfortunately so bad things have happened involved tech and social media, that it might soon become an absolute necessity.

  3. This is a super interesting point to bring up…especially given that breakdown you provided at the beginning of the current profile of the house and senate. There are no tech savvy people in the government, and like you, I was also super concerned with that facebook hearing given some of the questions they were asking. As for where we go from here, I think there needs to be a shift in government where we begin to hire tech advisors until we can get tech savvy people into the government itself.

  4. This was such an interesting post. I also have never looked into the demographics of Congress before, so I’m happy you highlighted it here. What an interesting mix of people, but it is frightening how little technology experience is represented. There is clearly a need for more tech experts in all levels of government, but I do think it might be a tough sell for a lot of people on the local level unless there is a shift in culture. I’m making a complete assumption here, but in a city like Boston where the tech and start up scene continues to grow, I would imagine not too many people want to pass up an attractive paycheck and cool perks. However, maybe if there are more people out there like your guest speaker spreading awareness of what they are doing and how they are making an impact, people’s views could change.

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