Tech execs wade into the political fray

Will IT smarts shape public policy?

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Why tech smarts matter in politics

John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and a co-author of the new book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, agrees with Markell that former tech execs bring something special to the political table that has been missing in government.

He says he's encouraged by this recent push into politics by some of his former colleagues; Seely Brown himself assisted the Obama post-election transition team in an unofficial capacity. "This country depends on innovation, and having people from the digital economy that understand just what it takes to create new technology and then put it into use is critical," he says. "These issues are not left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican issues. These are challenges that all tech-savvy folks can roll up their sleeves and get involved in."

Carly Fiorina
Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who's running for a U.S. Senate seat in California, says, "Even in technology, creating institutional change is difficult. It requires a major investment in consensus-building."

Tech experts, including Seely Brown, say there's a laundry list of ways that former IT execs who hold political office could draw on their experience to take the lead on transformational issues. Among other things, they could help provide transparency into government processes, promote green IT and a broader environmental agenda, gain wider support for electronic health records, deploy universal broadband, make decisions about Net neutrality, combat cybercrime, safeguard personal data, enforce antipiracy laws, fund research-and-development initiatives, and make decisions about H-1B visa policies.

Poizner, who is hoping to win the upcoming primary so he can tackle some of those issues -- as well as non-tech ones -- in California, says that government has not always seemed like a friendly place for the tech sector. "Until recently, I think government has been reluctant to reach out to the tech sector for ideas. Now [there is a realization] that we have a lot to offer in terms of new ideas on how to improve the way government works," he says.

The frustrations of culture shock

While Markell is excited that other tech execs want to enter the political waters, he says they should be prepared for a culture shock. For instance, in the fast-paced world of IT, there's more of a risk-taking attitude than is traditionally seen in government. In Congress, state houses, and city and town halls, failure to get legislation passed or projects completed is judged harshly -- and that can be frustrating for those who come from the tech industry, he says.

For instance, in the private sector, if a company fails with a new product, you don't often hear about it. However, if government fails at something, it's inevitably splashed across the media, he says.

In addition, IT leaders are accustomed to the private sector's lucrative salaries and some aren't willing to sacrifice and accept smaller government paychecks. And while tech-based issues are starting to get play in the media, there are also less glamorous, but equally important, topics that need attention, such as tax laws, public works projects and public safety.

Jake Brewer, campaign and engagement director at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, has seen the tech sector's frustration and impatience with the legislative process up close. Brewer describes his group as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on the digitization of government data and the creation of tools and Web sites to make that data easily accessible for all citizens. In that role, he has worked closely with both the technology sector and tech-savvy politicians.

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