Tech execs wade into the political fray

Will IT smarts shape public policy?

This political primary season, some high-profile former titans of high tech are vying to join the ranks of senators, governors, state attorneys general and other elected officials. If they succeed, observers expect the IT-execs-turned-pols to have a good deal to say about the increasing number of societal issues that involve technology, from information privacy and electronic health records to universal broadband and the threat of cyberwar.

In California alone, which holds its primary on June 8, ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina is running for U.S. Senate, former Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly is making a play for the state attorney general's office and in the Republican gubernatorial primary, ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman is facing off against high-tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, who founded two mobile-applications companies.

There's nothing new about tech-savvy people seeking to join the political fray, of course. Democrat Jack Markell, a former telecommunications executive, became governor of Delaware in 2008. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D- Wash.) left her position as vice president of marketing at RealNetworks and joined Congress in 2001. And then, of course, there was H. Ross Perot, founder of systems integrator Electronic Data Systems, who twice ran for president of the United States, in 1992 and 1996.

What has changed since Perot's bids, though, is the critical role that technology plays in both the economy and in people's everyday lives. This evolution has brought tech-related issues to the attention of officials at all levels of government. As a result, it's now very desirable for politicians to list "knowledge of IT" on their résumés.

Real tech experts vs. everyone else

But Gov. Markell warns that there's a big difference between being tech-savvy and merely knowing how to Twitter all day. Markell, who was vice president of corporate development at Nextel and a senior manager at Comcast, was elected Delaware state treasurer in 1998 and governor in 2008. He says his interest in politics stemmed from an awareness of how closely government and technology are now intertwined.

"There is a mutual dependence between the two. The tech sector depends on regulators and policy-makers, and the government needs technology to better serve its citizens," he says. "Having a firm grasp on technology puts you in a much better position to ask the right questions."

For instance, Delaware, like many states, is working to consolidate its IT resources, and Markell says his background has helped him lead that effort. While he acknowledges that "you never want the governor to operate at a level where he's choosing one technology over the other," he points out that he's been able to draw on his IT background to help the pro-consolidation forces understand that "it won't work unless we have total buy-in from key leaders and customers."

Markell adds that he sees many of his fellow politicians misusing technology. "While Twitter and Facebook can be great tools, they have to be used to accomplish something -- to make government more effective and efficient," he says. Markell feels elected leaders tend to engage in monologues rather than have dialogues with their constituents. "They should be using emerging social media to learn from citizens," he says, pointing out that those with intimate knowledge of technology can make that happen.

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