Why we need more technologists in politics

Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai
Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies before Congress.

Why we need more technologists in politics

Tech literacy in government needs to be improved.
January 6, 2019

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before Congress in December, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, asked why negative stories about him appeared on his granddaughter’s iPhone. “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai replied politely. Just months earlier, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg fielded similarly ill-informed questions, amusing and bewildering much of the public.

Few in Congress come from a background in science or technology. The consequent technological illiteracy has had far-reaching and negative consequences. Yet, as technology pervades every aspect of our lives, a greater understanding of the policy implications of new technology is clearly needed in order to formulate the right policies for an age of innovation and an emerging digital economy.

Technologists and scientists are just as scarce among New York’s elected officials. In the Assembly and state Senate, there are only a handful legislators with formal training in the sciences: one geologist, a technology executive, a nuclear engineer, a civil engineer, an electrical engineer and a chemist. The absence is more extreme in the New York City Council, as there are currently no members with any science background. Also, not a single web developer, software engineer or programmer is represented in any of those three main legislative bodies.

Compare this to the overwhelming number of legislators whose sole careers have existed within politics, or the many lawyers who occupy the state Capitol and City Hall. Legislators may be well-trained at winning arguments, but poorly equipped to understand the growing industries they must regulate. The city and state are wrestling with how to manage the growth of vacation rental websites like Airbnb and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. There are major implications for housing and hotels, cab drivers and mass transit. To enjoy the benefits of disruptive technological innovations while minimizing the negative unintended consequences requires delicately threading a needle. To properly devise or revise regulations for challenges unanticipated by laws passed decades ago, policymakers must understand how these technologies work and how they interact with consumers, employees and the rest of society.

So far, New York City and state have largely been caught flat-footed. The rise of ride-hailing apps has contributed to worsening traffic congestion and has sent the value of tax medallions plummeting, leading to a spate of taxi driver suicides. The New York City Council’s solution is an inefficient and ineffectual cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles, rather than a reimagining of an evolving traffic and transportation landscape. Imagine what might have been if an enterprising legislator had championed efforts to build an app sponsored by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission to compete with Uber and Lyft years ago, before the companies had already become dominant players in the market.

As technology becomes more intertwined in society, culture and politics, shouldn’t the same happen in government? With so much industry transformation as a result of fast-growing technology startups, policy often lags behind and has to react.

Consider blockchain technology, a software protocol that establishes a decentralized public ledger for transactions and which powers digital currencies like bitcoin. Blockchain could one day be used to administer government services like food stamps, track procurement for public works or even voting, decreasing fraud and abuse while increasing transparency and boosting efficiency. Fortune 500 companies like IBM and Google and organizations like the United Nations and the World Economic Forum recognize this potential and are investing heavily into the promise of blockchain. While Bitcoin uses blockchain, some legislators might think the two are synonymous, though one is a highly speculative cryptocurrency and the other is a promising emerging technology. Still, blockchain products, including cryptocurrency, raise new cybersecurity questions that will create another emerging area of complex potential government regulation.

Then there are issues on the horizon that will be raised by products with even more potential to alter society, the economy and everything from the environment to housing segregation. How will autonomous vehicles impact the insurance industry, traffic congestion, mass transit ridership and carbon emissions? Will the privacy of user data be protected by social media companies? Can artificial intelligence be used to remove racism from the mortgage approval process?

While nearly all other major industries or occupations, from educators to small business owners, are represented in state and local legislative bodies, the tech industry has few legislators with the expertise to lead on their issues. There is a dearth of proponents for tech-based solutions to improved governance, how startups can work with government rather than against it, and how the tech sector will undergird or upend New York’s future economy.

The lack of leadership on technology issues has led to a deep misunderstanding that has bred a distrust of technology and of the broader tech sector. Nothing may characterize this more clearly than the recent opposition to Amazon’s second headquarters in Long Island City. The industries of tomorrow will certainly be inextricably tethered to the tech sector. Likewise, advances in automation may arrive sooner than we expect. With automation will come a need to shift labor pools towards technology while retooling the workforce. This will require vision and forethought from government to work with labor unions, the private sector and educational institutions.

In fact, it may not just be knowledge of the tech sector that is missing in New York’s governing bodies, but also the culture, philosophy and enterprising spirit that comes with it. In the world of technology and startups, “lean” or “agile” processes dominate the way of thinking. Government functions using a waterfall approach, in which projects and policies are implemented at scale, leaving them to crash and burn if left untested, while the tech sector applies a scientific method to business, customers, and architecting technical solutions. Using the tech approach within government would mean deploying more lean and limited policies and programs as test cases, which can provide iterative loops by which improvements in services and policies can be made incrementally based on citizen feedback.

Government policy innovation happens only by taking risks. Yet, the bigger risk is when government operations are outdated, policies are maladapted, or modern technology is overlooked. More technologists in government and politics – elected entrepreneurs who do not have an aversion to failure and are risk-tolerant by character and training – could improve policy outcomes while increased tech literacy among legislators may ensure that no tech issue is only cryptically understood.

With the ever-increasing role of technology on politics and policy, scientists, engineers and programmers should begin to view government as the next industry ripe for disruption. They may be surprised to find that running for elected office isn’t so different than running a startup and that citizens are customers who deserve good service. The next great innovation, in fact, may not originate in a garage as code, but rather in the halls of the state Capitol as legislation.

Emil Skandul.
Emil Skandul
is the founder of Capitol Foundry, a digital innovation firm. He is an op-ed contributor to various publications on technology policy.