Today, President Obama made the Presidential Innovation Fellows-- a program bringing technologists into government to work with federal agencies on some of their thorniest tech problems-- permanent.
The Washington Post writes about TechCongress' founding and mission.
Fellowships in Congress aren't anything new. In fact, a number of the best programs (like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Congressional Science and Engineering Fellowship) have been around for close to 40 years. These programs-- including how each recruits, trains and places their fellows-- are models for Tech Congress.
Darren Samuelsohn at Politico reveals what might not come as a surprise to folks in the tech community: Congress isn't ready for the Internet of Things.
What I found, overall, is that the government doesn't have any single mechanism to address the Internet of Things or the challenges it’s presenting. Instead, the new networked-object technologies are covered by at least two dozen separate federal agencies — from the Food and Drug Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from aviation to agriculture — and more than 30 different congressional committees. Congress has written no laws or any kind of overarching national strategy specifically for the Internet of Things.
There was never a shortage of meetings or briefings about connected cars or wearables or drones while I was on Capitol Hill. But the holistic concept of a new world of connected devices-- and the policy implications therein-- hasn't broken through, at least to the average House staffer. I can't remember a single meeting or briefing about the IoT generally. Samuelsohn points to a key structural challenge for government relating to the Internet of Things, and a problem relevant to technology policy writ-large.
there’s an underlying mismatch between the way government handles issues and the way this new technology actually works. Government operates in silos — in Congress, committees often fight one another for jurisdiction harder than Democrats clash with Republicans; all the agencies, departments and commissions that make up the federal executive branch maintain separate fiefdoms for everything from agriculture, to defense, to transportation and energy.
The IOT is precisely the opposite. It is a freewheeling system of integrated objects and networks, growing horizontally, destroying barriers so that people and systems that never previously communicated now can. Already, apps on a smartphone can log health information, control your energy use and communicate with your car — a set of functions that crosses jurisdictions of at least four different government agencies.
The obvious takeaway is that technology policy is increasingly diffuse. Every agency and every committee-- transportation, energy, health, commerce-- needs to have staff that understand how tech works in order to make effective policy. The difference between Congress and the federal agencies it's charged with authorizing and overseeing, however, is that the agencies are making a real effort to source that kind of talent. Congress, on the other hand, is not.
There was a great piece in the Washington Post last week from Dave Steer, the Advocacy Director at the Mozilla Foundation, and Jenny Toomey, the Director of Internet Rights at the Ford Foundation that I wanted to highlight. Mozilla and Ford have just launched their Open Web Fellows program, which is bringing technology talent into civil society organizations. As they describe it
Unless we address the tech talent crisis, our ability to craft effective public policy will be at risk. As one member of Congress said during the Stop Online Piracy Act debate in 2011, it’s time to “bring in the nerds” who can explain the potential risks of ill-informed Internet policies.
I couldn't agree more. While the current slate of tech-to-gov initiatives at the US Digital Service, 18F and Code for America are doing really important work to help government build better service delivery platforms and smarter tech infrastructure, technological expertise should be extended to help inform policymaking. The Open Web Fellows program-- like Tech Congress-- will do just that, and take technologists and place them in policymaking roles at places like the New America Foundation, Public Knowledge and elsewhere.
The first cohort of fellows started this month. It's an exciting development for the technology-policy pipeline.
One of the lessons I've learned launching a startup is that big victory is a function of lining up small win after small win. There are always eighteen things you can be doing at any given time. The key to success is focusing on each piece individually.
Earlier this week I celebrated one of these wins.
Rep. Polis, who founded several startups before his time on Capitol Hill, is (quite appropriately) one of the key leaders in Congress on technology policy. These are his thoughts on Tech Congress and building the tech-talent pipeline into government.
“Attracting more tech talent to public service should be a priority for all Congressional offices and government agencies. Professionals with a background in engineering and technology bring a unique perspective and approach to problem solving that is key to addressing the dynamic challenges facing policymakers today. As technology becomes intertwined with all areas of everyday life, it’s crucial that the people in charge of creating the rules to govern these evolving areas understand how they work.”