Learning to be good at tech policy, not just tech
As a TechCongress fellow, I had a valuable opportunity to learn how Congress deals with tech from the inside including some questions to ask when beginning to look into a bill or policy proposal. Asking the sorts of questions that staffers do on policy issues can be helpful for anyone who wants to build or refine her/his opinion on tech policy. I hope that asking these questions helps you critically look at and engage on tech policy. Public engagement ultimately makes Congress smarter on tech.
What is the underlying law?
Most bills make changes to existing law—so to understand a bill you have to know what the existing statute does. This is actually less daunting than it sounds. For the internet, for instance, there are a handful of existing laws upon which most policy issues today touch—the Communications Decency Act (Section 230), the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For transportation issues, Titles 23 and 49 of U.S. Code and the large authorizations bills that pass every few years (such as MAP-21 or FAST Act).
What government agencies are involved?
I first started out in the office working on transportation data. It seemed like a natural fit for my background—mechanical engineering and years of following the topic as an editor. But I came to this fellowship without experience working at a federal transportation agency. For transportation data, I spent a week reading every report that came out of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Intelligent Transport Systems - Joint Program Office, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology, to name a few. I learned about their jurisdiction, where they get their money, how it is spent, and current and failed projects. You may not have time to do this with every new policy issue, but that crash course provided a good starting point for months ahead.
What’s the 360 view?
Hearing from a variety of different perspectives can help avoid unintended consequences in a policy proposal. This is becoming especially true for tech, because it is so ubiquitous—small companies may not have the resources to comply with a regulation that is good for the whole, or well-intentioned data policies may codify biases. As a staffer, it pays off to foresee these and engage all parties early and be as transparent as possible. The best staffers learn how to look at a bill from all parties’ perspectives.
Who are my trusted experts?
Congress moves incredibly slow sometimes, and fast sometimes (seemingly never at the pace you’d like). On significant bills, there are months to prepare and learn the issue. But in other instances, there could only be a day to research an unexpected amendment. Working in media, I had a list of trusted experts to go to when I need an explainer, or a voice for a specific side of an issue. Sometimes these could be veteran staffers if you are on the Hill, or specific experts from organizations to represent the voice of specific stakeholder groups. And you'll find that the more experienced you are, the better you can guess what your experts will say.