It’s Time to Govern
“It’s Time To Build.” A year after its publication, Marc Andreessen’s essay is still a rallying cry among technologists who lament our inability to solve society’s biggest problems. The essay calls out Western societies’ inability to build more housing, better transportation, and manufacture products—all exposed by the embarrassing American response to COVID-19.
“It’s Time To Build” pointed to something important. While software is eating the world, many of our deepest problems are not technology problems.
We had the technology to tackle many of the challenges of the past year; for example, distributing COVID vaccines, manufacturing masks, and tracking case numbers. We failed to build because of politics - bureaucracies unfit for a crisis.
One of the greatest lessons of the COVID pandemic is that many of the problems we care most about solving, will require technologists to enter politics and help fix our institutions.
So it’s time to build... better institutions. It’s time for technologists to govern.
Unfortunately, Silicon Valley today isn’t well-represented in the US government. Of 535 members of Congress, only 11 are engineers.
This isn’t surprising. For the past few decades, opportunities for America’s technologists and politicians to collaborate have decreased. Though tensions with China grow, we’re not in an active war. But World War II and the Cold War historically drove collaboration between technologists and the government.
Our government’s broken acquisitions process is also to blame. Increasing consolidation and a complex acquisition process has prevented startups from accessing government contracts. The notorious “valley of death” forces startups to wait for years for government contracts, discouraging them from doing business with the government at all. Government R&D increasingly goes to big defense contractors, rather than small tech companies.
It wasn’t always this way. The public sector historically funded many of our riskiest technical experiments, including ARPANet. In the 1950s and 1960s, out of a largely federally-funded computer science R&D ecosystem - often driven by military priorities - emerged many of the most influential companies in Silicon Valley. The US government played a critical role in funding risky, early-stage research bets, of which a few became successful commercial technologies. Early Silicon Valley was much more closely integrated with Washington than today’s: David Packard of Hewlett-Packard even served as Deputy Secretary of Defense.
But today, technologists who do want to tackle our greatest challenges will no longer be able to ignore the dysfunction of D.C. As was the case during and after WWII, many of the solutions to problems technologists most want to tackle, including education, healthcare, energy, and transportation, will be deeply influenced by the US government.
Andreessen was right: many of these problems are due to institutional dysfunction. And technologists who care about solving these big problems will be more effective if they can influence the institutions regulating them.
Technologists must be in government defining the moonshots that we should all strive for. The 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge kicked off years of progress of autonomous vehicles. What should our next moonshot be, and how should we organize to accomplish it? We can decide.
Technologists can correct critical misconceptions about technology among policymakers, advocate for innovation-friendly regulation, and influence policy on issues they care about. A policy memo advocating for a particular agency to allocate dollars to one area of AI research, could seed a product that a venture capitalist funds years from now.
We can also develop usable and beautiful digital government services: a veteran should be able to access his benefits as easily as I hail an Uber.
Getting there will not be easy. The route to influence a bill is not as clear as the path to raise capital and start or join a company. There are few pathways for talented young people to enter government, and the blame mostly lies with government. It’s particularly difficult for young technologists. But there are beginning to emerge a range of ways to participate.
What can we actually do?
First, we should think about the “revolving door” as an opportunity. While it’s often derogatory, the opposite might be little knowledge of industry or academia, in government. We should rotate in and out of government. We can govern, or build technology in government, for several years at a time before returning to industry or academia. We can serve one or two years in fellowships in the US Digital Service, TechCongress, Coding it Forward, Presidential Innovation Fellows working in an agency or on Capitol Hill.
And we don't even need to actually go into government directly to influence it. We can participate in the Aspen Tech Policy Hub to learn how to become a "policy entrepreneur," or the Day One Tech Policy Accelerator to learn how to advance a policy idea. We could write a policy proposal while still working in tech about issues we care about, like innovation-friendly immigration policy or support for science research - and later go into government to advance it.
Those of us who want to dedicate more time, especially later in our careers, can serve as leaders in the highest levels of US government. Civically-inclined exited founders could take a pay cut for several years as a technical leader at a federal agency, applying their technical and managerial skills in messy bureaucracies to fix essential government functions. In 2015, the Veteran’s Administration, led by a new CTO, were able to collapse over 500 veteran-facing sites into a single unified veteran experience, vets.gov, fixing simple but neglected features like browser compatibility. Working with nonprofits which can influence the US government is another route: during COVID, former tech executives founded COVID Act Now and the US Digital Response.
State-level roles can also be deeply impactful. State CTOs and Chief Data Officers (CDOs) were critical to different states’ COVID responses, solving thorny cross-jurisdiction data integration problems, procuring software, and directing funding to ensure COVID data was timely and accurate.
Technologists might found new organizations to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and DC, with operating models and theses we haven’t thought of yet. Gilman Louie founded In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture fund. Eric Schmidt chaired the National Security Commission on AI, which brought together technologists, other business executives, academics, and policymakers to generate AI policy recommendations and was remarkably successful in passing them into law. Frederick Terman took advantage of free-flowing grants from the U.S. Defense Department to turn Stanford into a hub of electronics research. Leaders in the Pentagon and Silicon Valley jointly founded the Defense Innovation Unit, which connects startups to needs in the military. Jennifer Pahlka, as deputy CTO of the White House, created the US Digital Service as an elite unit to improve federal websites, with stellar results.
Particularly ambitious technologists should also consider a run for office. Will Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer and one of the only recent members of Congress with a computer science background, was known for his expertise in cybersecurity while in office.
The US government also backs promising deep tech startups with grants and contracts, so it can pay to be familiar with government. For technologists building breakthrough science and tech, from satellites to autonomous vehicles, government grants and contracts are often critical capital when their projects are too early or technically risky for traditional venture capitalists. “America’s seed fund,” the Small Business Innovation and Research Program, doled out $3.1B in 2018 to firms in grants and contracts.
If we want to build companies in highly regulated industries, we will also need to become increasingly adept at lobbying. DC could easily stand in the way of moonshots, especially if technologists don’t occupy seats at the table and therefore cannot make a case for them. In the early days of PayPal, the team sent lobbyists to DC to oppose know-your-customer regulations that would have kneecapped the emerging fintech industry. As the gap between innovation and regulation widens, we must propose how we would like to be governed. Otherwise, we might end up in another situation like the crypto debacle in Congress this week, with a poorly worded cryptocurrency surveillance amendment that could stifle innovation and damage consumer privacy.
Economist Alfred O. Hirschman describes two options when faced with a bad situation, from a job you don’t like to a flailing relationship: voice your concerns and attempt to fix the situation, or exit and start from scratch. In Silicon Valley, the default inclination for solving problems is to build a new technology and start a company around it. And there’s an instinct to apply the same attitude to government: opt out. In one speech, Balaji Srinivasan argued that Silicon Valley’s “ultimate exit” would be “an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology.” Justifiably frustrated with broken institutions, these disillusioned technologists prefer to to start from scratch.
But even if it’s dysfunctional, the US government matters now. When a pandemic strikes, we need to be able to manufacture and distribute vaccines and code functioning websites to sign up for them. It would be a missed opportunity not to influence how government agencies - with multibillion dollar budgets - invest in technology. Technologists should certainly experiment with new forms of governance like crypto. But others should work to influence the government we still have.
It’s time to build... better relationships between the Valley and D.C. Even if our government doesn't make it easy, the biggest problems of the 2020s invite us technologists to choose voice over exit in the US government.
Anna Mitchell cares about building and funding technologies to keep societies free and secure. She loves to swing kettlebells, play piano, and explore NYC. Find her at @annarmitchell.