The Startup
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The Startup

We Need a US Secretary of Technology

Regardless of the outcome on November 3, the next administration should move to form the US Department of Technology and Innovation led by the first ever appointed Secretary of Technology.

The formation of this new Department would unify and amplify existing Federal Agency technology work, including that being done by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, US Digital Service, and other tech-focused offices of our Federal bureaucracy. Moreover, this move would create a much needed executive leadership position in the President’s cabinet – an elevated level of power and influence beyond the current highest tech positions in the land (US Chief Technology Officer and Director of the Officer of Science and Technology Policy).

Why do we need this transformation in Executive Branch tech leadership and organization?

We are living in a world where technology is inextricably tied to our identities, relationships and jobs — our very way of life. The ubiquity of cutting edge technologies has accelerated over the past decade and has become more integral to everything we do.

Too often it feels as though the US government dramatically lags in understanding and adopting cutting edge technologies as well as crafting policy measures that take into account our current future technological world. Or, to put it more bluntly, the ‘gap’ between technology and the Executive Branch has eroded to a chasm.

It’s not enough to have individual Federal departments prioritize technology and innovation within its own operations. Only centralized coordination and clearly defined executive leadership will elevate the importance of technology and pave the way for a 21st century US government.

A Secretary of Technology

The Secretary of Technology would be a member of the President’s Cabinet. In addition to the duties required of overseeing the newly formed Department of Technology and Innovation, the Secretary would have the challenging responsibility of advising and briefing the President directly on any technology-related matters.

The new Department would best be served if the inaugural Secretary is a private sector technology leader who possesses a broad understanding of established, cutting edge and bleeding edge technologies. In this way, the Secretary would be deft at applying a variety of technologies in the government and briefing the president on any technology-related matters.

A well-respected private sector technology leader as the Secretary would also be able to mobilize a vast network of other tech executives for the benefit of the Federal Government. The Secretary would build critical relationships between private tech companies (from startups to Big Tech) and the Federal Government.

In this way, we could see the Secretary of Technology serving as a powerful tech ambassador who can play a pivotal role in both mediating and navigating the contentious relationship between Big Tech and Government — ultimately helping to steer the Federal Government and private sector technology towards policies that make American’s lives better.

A Department of Technology and Innovation

The Department of Technology and Innovation mission and mandate should focus on the following ten key priority functions:

  1. Advise National Policy — Advise the President and Senior White House officials on technological aspects of the Executive branch and broader national policy as well as inform the President’s budget request in areas pertaining to technology.
  2. Monitor Emerging Technologies — Track emerging technologies (e.g. AI), analyze potential implications on US policy, determine how new developments could pose a threat to US security and economy and offer guidance on how to deal with these threats.
  3. Lead Research & Development — Manage Federal R&D technology activities, including setting R&D priorities that align emerging technologies with national policy agenda, developing Federal R&D budget and coordinating related programs and policies.
  4. Upgrade Federal Technology — Use technology to make the Federal Government more accessible, transparent and useful to citizens as well as develop interoperable systems that improve data sharing and coordination across Federal Agencies.
  5. Support Local & State Governments — Offer consultative and grant support to State and Local government technology officials to accelerate tech adoption and to advance the coordination of Federal-State-Local technology policies and initiatives.
  6. Build Global Partnerships — Work closely with the State Department to consult with foreign government counterparts and international organizations to advance global technology policy and shared technology advancement priorities.
  7. Cultivate Tech Industry Partnerships — Build strong relationships between leading technology companies and the Federal Government, enabling greater connectivity and participation by private sector and academic experts in advancing US technology policy.
  8. Hire Leading Technologists as Advisors — Create a ‘residency program’ that hires the leading experts in key fields of academia and commercialized technologies as advisors to the Department and Federal Agencies with on-ramps to long-term employment.
  9. Establish Office of Start-ups — Launch an office that develops programs that contribute to (i) catalyzing new tech start-ups, (ii) supporting existing tech start-up growth and (iii) enabling underrepresented founders to have more equitable access to critical resources.
  10. Establish Office of Climate Change Tech — Launch an office that develops programs to identify and enable the accelerated testing and scaling of emerging technology solutions (e.g Electrical Vehicle Batteries) for the existential threat of climate change.

Congress Could Play a Leading Role Too.

Founding the Department of Technology and Innovation would certainly be a major step forward in putting technology at the centerstage of American policy. That said, Congress could play its role as well.

Congress has been plagued with publicly embarrassing failures to understand the 21st century technologies that are ubiquitous to everyday Americans and major drivers of our economy. This lack of tech knowledge could and should be addressed by reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

Between 1972 and 1995, the OTA offered members of Congress and their staffers objective analysis on the leading contemporary scientific and technology-based issues. The more than 750 studies the OTA conducted and published provided Congress with digestible information that informed bipartisan policy decisions.

In 1995, Congress defunded OTA’s $21.9M annual budget, which eliminated the OTA’s 143 staff positions and choked Congress of non-partisan, expert analysis on technology — just as the internet boom of the 90’s was beginning to take shape.

Just imagine how current cringeworthy debates between Congress and Big Tech (Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google) would look if Members were informed with facts and data about emerging and leading technology trends? It’s not too late. Congress can and should step up and bring back the OTA, which would be a welcome Legislative complement to the Department of Technology and Innovation.

Towards a Government Where Tech Matters

Across and down the ballot, technology policy is not a focal point of the 2020 Election Cycle. Unprecedented issues of public health and COVID-19 response, pandemic relief, racial justice, health care, job creation and economic growth, trade and national security are justifiably at the top of minds for millions of Americans — as they should be!

But technology and innovation policies do not need to be in the media or debated around the kitchen table for them to be instrumental to our individual lives and the future of our country. Technology is too often the unseen, underlying architecture to our lives — impacting not just our individual decisions but also informing our national policies, fueling our 21st century economy and shaping our relationships with one other and our societal cultures at large.

Humanity and technology are now locked in a forever dance. The US government is our representative body in this dance. Our next elected leaders have a pivotal opportunity in 2021 to take the lead — bringing technology to the public foreground of policy making and being the driving force that shapes how technology will impact all of our lives.

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