Tech execs wade into the political fray

Will IT smarts shape public policy?

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"The American public has expectations that they will be able to check their stocks or the latest baseball scores on the Internet. Yet, there isn't that same expectation for real-time access to how their representatives voted on legislation," the Sunlight Foundation's Brewer says. "You need more technology-oriented people in Congress to understand that information doesn't just need to get online, it needs to be readily accessible and easily accessed."

For instance, he says, the U.S. Senate still files paper-based campaign finance reports rather than inputting the information directly into a database. And he says he'd like to see a real-time, online tracker of where lobbying dollars are being spent. "Immediate access to information allows for action, and action allows for accountability," Brewer says.

American flag

But the lack of technology isn't the only stumbling block. Laws that inhibit recording and storing certain types of information in order to protect privacy can also inadvertently cause problems. While some elements of such laws are useful, Blum contends that other parts slow progress and that tech-aware lawmakers could eliminate unnecessary and burdensome restrictions.

"Someone who understands technology and how it impacts business and users could bring clarity to legislation," Blum says. In fact, most tech executives have also already had to take a stand on privacy, cybercrime, wiretapping and other pressing legal debates that are happening in federal, state and local governments. "Many have already been deeply engaged in these types of public policy issues," he says.

Trickling down

While activity at the federal and state levels garners more attention, tech-savvy politicians are having an impact at the city and county levels as well.

"If you're one of hundreds of in Congress, it can feel like it's hard to make a difference. But at the local level, you can have a dramatic effect," says Dave Hatter, a six-term member of the Fort Wright, Ky., city council and president of Libertas Technologies LLC, a Cincinnati-based custom software maker.

For instance, he has helped transform the way the city prints bills and how citizens pay them. "We used to pay an outsourcer to process and print our bills. But the carbon forms were cumbersome and difficult for the elderly to read. Instead, we wrote a program so that we could generate clearly printed bills ourselves. We also now let people pay their bills online. That has saved $10,000 a year," he says.

Hatter says the switch-over worked because he was able to see the flaws in the previous system and make a business case to other council members. "It's easy for governments to be bamboozled by unscrupulous vendors unless you have someone with a critical eye," he says. "Experience also helps me look at processes and say, 'doesn't it make sense to automate this?'"

Pete Constant, a San Jose city councilor, says you don't even need to be a tech executive to make a change, just tech-savvy. Constant, who owned a photo studio and digital imaging lab, says he's always looking for ways to improve city government through technology.

Recently, he helped the city implement an iPhone application that allows citizens to e-mail his staff pictures of things like graffiti, potholes and nonworking streetlamps. Constant's office uses the GPS coordinates of the picture to verify that it was taken within city limits and then forwards the photo to the proper authorities.

For instance, graffiti photos would be sent to the city's antigraffiti team, whose members would check it against a database of examples of graffiti that have been connected to gang activity. Thanks to the application, city police have been able to gather enough evidence of graffiti sightings to charge gang members with felonies. In San Jose, graffiti is a felony if it causes more than $400 in damage. The database allows officials to pin multiple instances of graffiti tags to specific individuals or groups, thereby enabling them to build what may have started out as a misdemeanor into a more serious charge.

"We just launched the application in December, and since then... we've had hundreds of incidents reported and a 90% resolve rate," says Constant.

He says he has been surprised over the years how technophobic San Jose can be, even though it's considered the capital of Silicon Valley. "We still maintain old city hall with legacy systems," he says. But he predicts that will change as the millennial generation comes of age. "When today's teenagers become tomorrow's leaders," he says, "there will be a sea change in government's attitude toward technology."

Gittlen is a freelance technology writer in the greater Boston area. She can be reached at sgittlen@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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