Congressional Innovation Scholars: Now Recruiting

As the events of the last few months have shown, tech and government are on a collision course.  For most of the past two decades, Congress was happy to confine technology issues to a subcommittee or two.  Over the last few years, however, just about every committee in Congress has made tech part of their jurisdiction.  That’s important, because unlike an issue like health or finance or transportation, tech isn’t just a single slice of the policymaking pie.  In the 21st century, tech is like the flour, baked into every piece of the pie. For decent, functioning, and independent decision making about policy to become a reality in Congress, the institution needs to be staffed by people who understand how technology works

The tech industry has been famously leery of government.  Steve Jobs, Apple’s iconic CEO, famously avoided DC at all costs.  Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook,  openly disdains the regulatory state.  But tech is no longer just confined to chips, software, and the app economy, and technology innovators know that they can’t keep Washington at an arm's length any longer.  Steve Case, the founder of AOL, talks of tech moving into a third wave, into the physical and regulated world, where engagement in policy is not only important but will be critical to business success.  

If you take a look at the sectors listed in Y Combinator’s request for startups, half are highly regulated.  Most—like pharmaceuticals, energy, biotech, food, and farming—are federally regulated.  Many others—like transportation, housing, education, and the future of work—are regulated across federal, state, and local government.  The need for leaders who understand how technology works and government functions (and doesn’t) is essential for an economy built on tech, and a government trying to keep up with increasingly rapid technological change.

Building this generation of leaders is why TechCongress exists.   So far TechCongress has placed 11 fellows in Congress, for Republicans and Democrats, and we’re seeing results.  Two of our 2017 fellows have been hired on the Hill, bringing the number of Senate legislative staff with a technical background from zero to two (and the total number of Congressional staff from five to seven).  In the third year of the program, we’re continuing to grow, welcoming a class of six fellows this year.  But we’re not growing fast enough or far enough to meet the challenge.    

We’ve had over 60 Congressional office request fellows.  There are 535 Members of Congress, and 50 state legislatures and dozens, if not hundreds, of city governments that are also grappling with technology policy issues.  The Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection in the California Assembly, with a total staff of three people, had hearings and markups on 17 bills just about drones between 2015 and 2016.  The CTO of a major U.S. city recently told me that he spends a huge portion of his time educating his City Council about basic technical concepts— on issues like 5G tower sighting and data privacy—so that they don’t legislate horribly unworkable mandates.

The absence of technical capacity is a problem at every legislative level of government.  And scaling TechCongress with our current model—when our fellows earn a stipend of $75,000—is simply not possible.  

So how do we grow, and try to address this bigger problem?  We think universities may have the answer.  

Last fall, I interviewed twelve of the top computer science and engineering faculty in the country, including Herb Lin, Ed Felten, Yoshi Kohno, and others.  I wanted to know whether they had students that would be interested in working on policy, or in government, if there were opportunities to do so  They all agreed they had many who would.

Taylor Reynolds, the Technology Policy Director at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, put it most succinctly.  Although only a minority of his students wanted to work on emerging policy issues, like advanced robotics or AI ethics, it was not an insignificant number.  Between five and ten percent of his students, he said, are interested in policy, but “I have nowhere to send them.”  The supply of technical talent exists, but there’s no established pathway into government for these students.  

Government, on the other hand, isn’t equipped to hire for technology expertise.  First, people hire people like themselves.  Lawyers are biased towards hiring lawyers.  Moreover, just as university faculty don’t know where to send a budding computer scientist with an interest in policy, government staff have no idea where to look for someone that understands technology, and who also possess the soft skills and emotional intelligence required to perform in a highly collaborative, many times bureaucratic context.  The demand side—government—hasn’t used the product enough to know where to find it and what attributes are important.  

This is where TechCongress can play a role.  Because we’ve worked in government, we know the skills that it demands.  We also know where to place students so that they’re successful.  That means finding the elected representatives that are the innovators and the early adopters; the Members of Congress who understand that a technologist isn’t an IT staffer, but a resource that can help them understand how technology is changing our economy and how we live our lives.

These technologists exist, and there are a lot of them in computer science, engineering, informatics and other degree programs, but there’s no pathway to bring them into government.  We’re going to build that pathway this year.  We’re calling it the Congressional Innovation Scholars program.

Our goal is to find a handful of students— Master’s or PhD’s— that want to help us build this program in Congress.   Just like our other fellows, we’ll place them on the Hill, in high-impact offices, working on issues ranging from investigating the security of our elections, to proposing standards for medical device safety, to opening government data.  They'll serve in Congress for four to six months, starting this summer.

And just as we modeled the Congressional Innovation Fellowship off a combination of programs like the Robert Wood Johnson Health policy fellowship and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, we’ll do the same with our Innovation Scholars program.  

Scores of universities have programs to send students to Congress as summer interns. The National Science Foundation’s CyberCorp program provides scholarships to graduate students in cybersecurity for completing a tour of duty in government after they graduate.  The Master’s in Public Policy & Management at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College requires an eight month work-study in Washington during the second year of its program.  We’ll take a combination of the best of these models to find talented technical students to place them on the Hill.  

If that works, we’ll take the model to other levels of government, and establish partnership between state universities and the state legislatures.  The University of California system sends their best and brightest political science undergrads to Congress.  There’s no reason they can’t be sending their top engineers to Sacramento, to help the Assembly on the huge range of tech policy issues they’re confronting.

We are going to grow the TechCongress model by connecting the supply of technical talent interested in policy with the demand side of governments that need to understand the fundamentals of technology.  If you know brilliant students that want to transform government, we’re hiring.  Please send them our way.


(Creative Commons image courtesy of WOCinTechChat)