Towards a National Technology Policy
A final excerpt from my conversation with Vint Cerf (previous bits here; I'll get the whole thing online soon, with a shorter version set to appear in the print mag). Here, Cerf discusses the need for a national technology policy. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an architect of the internet, he believes a relatively decentralized approach would work best.
When it comes to national policy, I worry about the idea of trying to centralize everything. The Washington tactic is, when there's a problem, you appoint a czar, and the czar is responsible. It's like the War on Drugs, or the War on Poverty. But it never quite works like that, because the economy is highly distributed, and our entire governmental structure is highly distributed, so what you're looking for, more than centralizing, is to infuse our very distributed environment with certain postures and principles that will influence people's decisions, whether it's a company CEO or a policy-maker somewhere in the government structure, whether it's local or state or national.
An example of a posture that I'd be very pleased to see would be increased attention to technical input into policy development. We have lost a great deal of that input over the course of the last eight years.
I'd like to see visible evidence of the reconstitution of bodies providing technical input to policy makers. A small example would be the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, PITAC, that President Clinton put in place. I'm a little biased because I served on the committee, but what I observed in the course of my time on that committee is that it had a very strong drawing power, convening power to bring together people from various parts of the government who were particularly concerned about information technology and its further development.
And the consequences of the committee deliberations had what I thought was direct effect not only in policy decision in the executive branch, for example in the research area, but also helped influence thinking at the legislative level. The committee went out of its way to brief members of Congress and staff about issues that had come under the purview of that committee. I think more of that is really valuable, not just at the national level but at the state level, and maybe even at the local level, when you're talking about infrastructure development, broadband access to Internet, things of that kind, you want some locally sensible decision making that's driven in part by technology and economics.CIOI: If a technology czar of some sort is the result of the DC process, would that still be better than what we have now?
Cerf: Maybe a compromise is that there is an office of Science and Technology policy for the executive office of the President. That's where PITAC was situated, there's also the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, PCAST. These are existing mechanisms, or previously-existing mechanisms that could be reconstituted. Drawing on the technical community at different levels of government is what I'm looking for here. If you try to centralize it, you don't get decision making at the level of detail that is needed in all the various instances where you want to have technical input. Local conditions are going to involve different kinds of solutions.
My concern about centralizing things is that you don't get very good solutions. If you want to draw attention to the importance of technology in policy making at the national level, perhaps you do need to have a cabinet level person - but what is the purview of that person? I would compare it to the evangelist position I have at Google. I don't make decisions, I don't believe it's appropriate, but I can lobby like crazy in every venue where people will listen, to apply principles like net neutrality, for example, in the course of deciding policy. It's encouraging people to draw on valuable and distributed resources of information that strikes me as the most important outcome of this kind of thinking.CIOI: Obama has talked about a national Chief Technology Officer. Is what we need really more of a national Chief Information Officer?
Cerf: Maybe, although it's fair to say that there's more to technology than information. So it depends a great deal on what Senator Obama has in mind in terms of scope for such a position. For example, DARPA acts a kind of central resource for research for the military, including to the military departments' own research branches. So in a funny way, from the defense point of view, that is the central technology arm of the organization. But it engages in a very broad way across the country, finding some of the best people in the United States and in some cases outside of the United States to help resolve really tough technical issues.
So if there were such a position, whether a CIO position or a CTO as the Obama campaign refers to it, having that position in the cabinet begs the question, what does that party actually do? Does that party have a budget? Are there things that the organization that forms under this position have authority for? The worst thing in the world is to have a position where all you can do is say no, because if you say yes you can't afford to pay for anything. That's the source of some frustration for a number of people in the private sector who serve as Chief Technolgy Officers, if they don't have budget and staff it's very hard to make something happen.