While I was working as legislative director for Rep. Henry Waxman, I attended a briefing by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about wireless spectrum. The FCC handed us a chart-- legal size and laminated-- that mapped out the spectrum bands in colors that reminded me of the early 90s-- magenta, teal, sea foam green. It was their way of giving us a roadmap we could use when thinking about the upcoming spectrum auction-- what bands were used for what and what would be available in rounds of bidding.
It was helpful, though apparently it didn’t lay out the fundamental laws of spectrum sufficiently. In a later meeting, someone who was also in the earlier briefing asked a lobbyist if there was any way we could create “new” spectrum to satisfy the growing need for capacity. I’m not a physicist, but my understanding is that this question is about as absurd as asking if we could slow down gravity.
Technology is difficult. How our mobile devices store and process information about us, how networks systems operate, what digital security and encryption mean in technological terms-- these are complicated matters. Today, technology touches every Committee in Congress. But Congress doesn’t have people in the building that understand how underlying technology operates. In fact, in my experience -- six years on Capitol Hill and over 250 conversations with tech policy stakeholders -- I’ve only found four Congressional staff (out of the 125,000 total) that have any formal technical training. Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment 20 years ago, cutting off its only source of technological and scientific expertise. It’s no secret that Congress is living in the technological dark ages, and that it has seeded intellectual capacity on technology to outsiders as a result. If we want an institution capable of addressing the range of technology challenges coming down the pike, this has to change.
Can we fix this? Yes. The good news is that Congress already has models to help bring in outside experts to incubate communities of cross-sector leaders. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been sending Health Policy Fellows-- like doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators-- into Congress since 1973. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) began sending PhDs to Congress that same year. TechCongress, in partnership with the Open Technology Institute at New America, is excited to be following those models and will place three technologists in Congress starting January 2016.
Indeed, peer down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol and you can see the results of other efforts to inject technology talent into governing. Todd Park and Megan Smith and other forward-thinkers in the White House have built entirely new teams of technologists that are tackling some of government's biggest challenges-- like getting veterans access to electronic health records, helping small businesses access federal government contracts and, of course, creating a marketplace for healthcare for uninsured Americans at HealthCare.gov. The Executive Branch is proving the value of having technologists-- through permanent staff and programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows-- at the table for policy development and delivering services that Americans depend on.
Congress should be no different. Congressional Innovation Fellows will get a first rate education into how our government works, and serve directly with Members of Congress, Congressional Committees or Congressional Service Agencies (like the Congressional Research Service or General Accountability Office). They’ll work on many of the big tech issues in the headlines like NSA surveillance reform, patent reform, cybersecurity, encryption or network neutrality. Duties will be similar to that of regular legislative staff and could include briefing Members and staff about technology issues, writing legislation, preparing for hearings or markups, meeting with stakeholder groups and building coalitions.
Fellows will go through an in-depth orientation program about Congress and tech policy, and will experience ongoing programming with leaders in tech in academia, civil society and at technology companies. After the program, some may stay in government, and some will go back to the private sector. But they will all be part of a community that can speak the language of government and of tech; of helping the technology world understand that Congress isn’t a monolith-- it’s 535 small businesses that have 535 distinct personalities.
It’s easy to be cynical about Congress these days; it can feel dysfunctional and frustrating from the outside and within. But, it’s also a great place to work-- where a legislative staffer can have an outsized impact and contribute to our country. Regardless of how you feel about Congress, whether you’re on the right or the left, it’s essential that the first branch of government have the capacity to understand and keep up with advances in technology. We need to build an ecosystem of people in tech that understand how Congress does and doesn’t operate. And we hope TechCongress will be part of that important work.
We’re looking for a few good men and women to take nine months and serve their country, helping bring Congress into the 21st Century. If you’re a trained technologist interested in public policy, a lawyer that can code, or tech worker that wants to apply their knowledge of industry to how Washington operates and can operate better, come join us.
The country requires a Congress that can work with the tech world to grow our economy and help all Americans succeed. And for that, Congress requires more tech smarts. Applications for our inaugural class of Congressional Innovation Fellows close November 1.