Tech execs wade into the political fray

Will IT smarts shape public policy?

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Over time, virtually every tech company of any significant size either opened a D.C. office or beefed up an existing one so it could have "eyes and ears on the ground," Boothby says. She contends that the expanding relationship between the government and the tech sector paved the way for tech executives themselves to gain experience in lawmaking and eventually seek elected office.

"The tech industry is so much a part of our economy that [its leaders] can no longer live outside of the mainstream. They have to get involved," Boothby says.

Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public interest organization in Washington, also has seen this shift. He says leaders in the tech sector today don't just bring their computer knowledge to the table, they understand the impact that legislation can have on global commerce and innovation. "Many tech leaders have managed global teams and have done business around the world. They intuitively know what government needs to do to keep openness in the system," he says.

A two-way street

Meanwhile, many of the nontechies in Congress have caught on, says Jack Krumholz, who is now managing director of the Glover Park Group, a registered lobbying firm in Washington that has some clients in the tech sector. "In the earlier days, there was definitely an education hurdle, where I had to spend time bringing people up to speed before we could even start talking about an issue. Now, there are people in Congress who truly understand technology and serve as touchstones to help other lawmakers become well versed on topics."

He adds that the government's technology gap is being bridged naturally, because a growing number of lawmakers and their staffers have personal experience using technology and are interested in how it can be applied in government.

Fred Humphries, managing director of U.S. government affairs at Microsoft, has also seen lawmakers becoming more tech-savvy. "Look at their campaigns alone and how they are using technology to reach out to [prospective] voters. They integrate maps and instant messaging and social networking and databases to inform and educate them," he says.

He notes that legislators are asking tough questions about cybersecurity, privacy and health IT. Their constituents want them to weigh in on those issues, Humphries says.

Putting tech knowledge to work

Many of the issues facing government today heavily involve technology, and Seely Brown says technology leaders have to take part in those debates. As an example, he points to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's call for dramatic changes in health care IT. "You're going to need people who understand the underlying digital infrastructure and how you're going to share medical information across millions of receivers to grasp the magnitude of this situation," he says.

Rick Blum is coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, an Arlington, Va.-based coalition of media groups promoting policies to help ensure that the government is accessible, accountable and open. He says the Freedom of Information Act, which addresses how the government handles citizens' requests for public records, is another area where tech-savvy politicians could have an impact.

The Freedom of Information Act "could work much better if the right technology was brought to government agencies. Some [agencies] are still keeping track of requests by handwritten forms. These agencies need guidance from lawmakers that have a vision and know how technology can be used to automate the system," he says. The outcome would be a citizenry that would be able to make more informed decisions because the government's information would be more accurate and up to date.

Blum says technology could transform a wide spectrum of transparency issues. "The 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government learn to share information amongst themselves and the public. That's all about the underlying systems," he says. In addition, there are large IT infrastructure projects under way at various agencies, including the Department of Justice and the National Archives, that would benefit from intelligent oversight by legislators and other elected officials.

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