SXSW, and Working Within Institutions

Last week I attended South By Southwest Interactive.   I’d never been to the conference-- or a conference focused on technology generally, rather than technology policy specifically.  The broader audience was good for me-- I was exposed to new ideas and people; people that aren’t part of the regular gov-tech conference circle that include the Code for America Summit, Personal Democracy Forum, and Netroots Nation.

I was there officially to serve on a panel titled The Emerging Millennial Consensus on Tech Policy.  Our panel was part of a series of events focused on the intersection of tech and politics organized by Dell and Glasshouse Policy-- a local Austin-based think tank founded to open the political process.

I could talk about the specific tech policy issues we discussed, but here’s what I think was interesting about the panel:  each of us talked about how we work within existing institutions to influence, improve, or modernize.  So much of the rhetoric in politics this year is angry, adversarial, and full of black-and-white.  But the two big themes of the panel were:

  1. Nuance:  Issues are hard, people are complicated, relationships take time; and

  2. Partnership: Getting things done is much easier by building alliances.

Steven Olikara talked about his work building Future Caucuses as a forum for the millennial perspective at the state and federal level.  Luis Viguria discussed his work to help governments design  programs and structures to spur entrepreneurs throughout Latin America.  And Rep. Sinema told several stories describing her work to bring other Members of Congress up to speed on new modes of technology.

So much of the conversation today about government’s role in tech policy-- or government generally-- begins with the premise that government is dumb and improving it is simply a matter of making it “smarter.”  That conversation typically then devolves into tactical maneuvers designed to shame or threaten government into action.  I found our conversation at SXSW refreshing because it wasn’t about shame or blame political advocacy or lobbying-- it was about meeting government where it is, and understanding its needs and constraints in order to get things done.

The day before, President Obama had told attendees that he was there to recruit the technology talent in Austin to work together to tackle the big problems in society.   I was glad our panel talked about some of the clear, concrete ways that technology-savvy problem solvers are already doing that.