Former tech titans seek new careers in politics

This political primary season, some high-profile former titans of high tech are vying to join the ranks of senators, governors, state attorneys general and other elected officials.

If they succeed, observers expect the IT-execs-turned-pols to have a good deal to say about the increasing number of societal issues that involve technology, from information privacy and electronic health records to universal broadband and the threat of cyberwar.

In California alone, which holds its primary on June 8, ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina is running for U.S. Senate, former Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly is making a play for the state attorney general’s office and in the Republican gubernatorial primary, ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman is facing off against high-tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, who founded two mobile-applications companies.

Related Video: Chris Kelly talks about Facebook Connect

There’s nothing new about tech-savvy people seeking to join the political fray, of course. Democrat Jack Markell, a former telecommunications executive, became governor of Delaware in 2008. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D- Wash.) left her position as vice president of marketing at RealNetworks and joined Congress in 2001. And then, of course, there was H. Ross Perot, founder of systems integrator Electronic Data Systems, who twice ran for president of the United States, in 1992 and 1996.

What has changed since Perot’s bids, though, is the critical role that technology plays in both the economy and in people’s everyday lives. This evolution has brought tech-related issues to the attention of officials at all levels of government. As a result, it’s now very desirable for politicians to list “knowledge of IT” on their résumés.

Real tech experts vs. everyone else

But Gov. Markell warns that there’s a big difference between being tech-savvy and merely knowing how to Twitter all day. Markell, who was vice president of corporate development at Nextel and a senior manager at Comcast, was elected Delaware state treasurer in 1998 and governor in 2008. He says his interest in politics stemmed from an awareness of how closely government and technology are now intertwined.

“There is a mutual dependence between the two. The tech sector depends on regulators and policy-makers, and the government needs technology to better serve its citizens,” he says. “Having a firm grasp on technology puts you in a much better position to ask the right questions.”

For instance, Delaware, like many states, is working to consolidate its IT resources, and Markell says his background has helped him lead that effort. While he acknowledges that “you never want the governor to operate at a level where he’s choosing one technology over the other,” he points out that he’s been able to draw on his IT background to help the pro-consolidation forces understand that “it won’t work unless we have total buy-in from key leaders and customers.”

Markell adds that he sees many of his fellow politicians misusing technology.

“While Twitter and Facebook can be great tools, they have to be used to accomplish something — to make government more effective and efficient,” he says. Markell feels elected leaders tend to engage in monologues rather than have dialogues with their constituents. “They should be using emerging social media to learn from citizens,” he says, pointing out that those with intimate knowledge of technology can make that happen.

Why tech smarts matter in politics

John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and a co-author of the new book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, agrees with Markell that former tech execs bring something special to the political table that has been missing in government.

He says he’s encouraged by this recent push into politics by some of his former colleagues; Seely Brown himself assisted the Obama post-election transition team in an unofficial capacity. “This country depends on innovation, and having people from the digital economy that understand just what it takes to create new technology and then put it into use is critical,” he says. “These issues are not left vs. right or Democrat vs. Republican issues. These are challenges that all tech-savvy folks can roll up their sleeves and get involved in.”

Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who’s running for a U.S. Senate seat in California, says, “Even in technology, creating institutional change is difficult. It requires a major investment in consensus-building.”

Tech experts, including Seely Brown, say there’s a laundry list of ways that former IT execs who hold political office could draw on their experience to take the lead on transformational issues. Among other things, they could help provide transparency into government processes, promote green IT and a broader environmental agenda, gain wider support for electronic health records, deploy universal broadband, make decisions about Net neutrality, combat cybercrime, safeguard personal data, enforce antipiracy laws, fund research-and-development initiatives, and make decisions about H-1B visa policies.

Poizner, who is hoping to win the upcoming primary so he can tackle some of those issues — as well as non-tech ones — in California, says that government has not always seemed like a friendly place for the tech sector. “Until recently, I think government has been reluctant to reach out to the tech sector for ideas. Now [there is a realization] that we have a lot to offer in terms of new ideas on how to improve the way government works,” he says.

The frustrations of culture shock

While Markell is excited that other tech execs want to enter the political waters, he says they should be prepared for a culture shock. For instance, in the fast-paced world of IT, there’s more of a risk-taking attitude than is traditionally seen in government. In Congress, state houses, and city and town halls, failure to get legislation passed or projects completed is judged harshly — and that can be frustrating for those who come from the tech industry, he says.

For instance, in the private sector, if a company fails with a new product, you don’t often hear about it. However, if government fails at something, it’s inevitably splashed across the media, he says.

In addition, IT leaders are accustomed to the private sector’s lucrative salaries and some aren’t willing to sacrifice and accept smaller government paychecks. And while tech-based issues are starting to get play in the media, there are also less glamorous, but equally important, topics that need attention, such as tax laws, public works projects and public safety.

Jake Brewer, campaign and engagement director at the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, has seen the tech sector’s frustration and impatience with the legislative process up close. Brewer describes his group as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on the digitization of government data and the creation of tools and Web sites to make that data easily accessible for all citizens. In that role, he has worked closely with both the technology sector and tech-savvy politicians.

“Washington can be a difficult place for tech leaders. They’re used to running things at light speed, and they want the legislative process to go the same way. That doesn’t always happen,” he says.

But Fiorina doesn’t agree that a chasm exists. “You know, technology may be at the cutting edge of innovation — and that’s a quickly moving edge — but even in technology, creating institutional change is difficult. It requires a major investment in consensus-building. To get anything done, you have to influence others’ opinions and let them influence yours,” she says.

Indeed, she says, “One of the major reasons I got involved in politics and why I’m running for U.S. Senate is because the decisions made by the Senate affect every family and every business in America, including the technology sector. Sometimes that’s to the industry’s benefit and sometimes it’s to the industry’s detriment.”

Poizner says he actually sees a lot of similarities between his time in the tech sector and what he expects to happen in government. “I’m a person that builds and fixes things. [Now] I’m going to have to build coalitions in order to get laws passed through the California legislature,” he says.

(Fiorina and Poizner responded to questions via e-mail. Whitman declined Computerworld‘s requests for an interview, and Kelly did not respond.)

Tech sector in transition

Political insiders say they have seen a greater interest in government within the tech sector overall, and that certainly makes it more palatable for tech leaders to enter politics. For instance, Google, Microsoft and a lot of the other big-name industry giants have an increasing presence in Washington and spend considerable time and money on Capitol Hill, educating lawmakers about the issues.

“The tech sector depends on regulators and policy-makers, and the government needs technology to better serve its citizens,” says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a former tech executive. “Having a firm grasp on technology puts you in a much better position to ask the right questions.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’, in 2009 the computer and Internet industry spent more than $119 million on lobbying, making it the sixth largest influencer behind such heavy hitters as the pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and electric utility industries. Microsoft topped the list of individual company contributors in the computer and Internet sector, spending $6.7 million. IBM shelled out $5.4 million, and Google spent $4 million.

That’s a sharp rise from the late 1990s, when Microsoft, which spent just over $3.9 million on lobbying in 1998, faced an antitrust lawsuit. Some observers mark Microsoft’s battle with the government as a time of awakening for executives at emerging computer and Internet companies, who were a bit more naive than their predecessors at older tech companies when it came to dealing with Washington.

“While IBM and AT&T also had antitrust cases, they were more mature companies at the time and already had cozied up to Washington. Microsoft [and its peers] had pretty much ignored Washington, D.C., before its antitrust case and they got clobbered. That case proved that there can be bad consequences if the tech sector does not pay attention to government,” says Colleen Boothby, a partner in the Washington-based law firm Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby LLP, which represents corporate customers in court and before the Federal Communications Commission.

She says that, until then, the upstarts had been busy creating new products and selling them into a market where there was little or no existing law or policy-making process to trip them up. “It’s not that there was hostility, they were just kind of oblivious,” she says. “Once their businesses developed enough to run into tax issues, import/export restrictions, H-1B visas, antitrust scrutiny, etc., they had to start caring about Washington.”

Over time, virtually every tech company of any significant size either opened a D.C. office or beefed up an existing one so it could have “eyes and ears on the ground,” Boothby says. She contends that the expanding relationship between the government and the tech sector paved the way for tech executives themselves to gain experience in lawmaking and eventually seek elected office.

“The tech industry is so much a part of our economy that [its leaders] can no longer live outside of the mainstream. They have to get involved,” Boothby says.

Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public interest organization in Washington, also has seen this shift. He says leaders in the tech sector today don’t just bring their computer knowledge to the table, they understand the impact that legislation can have on global commerce and innovation. “Many tech leaders have managed global teams and have done business around the world. They intuitively know what government needs to do to keep openness in the system,” he says.

A two-way street

Meanwhile, many of the nontechies in Congress have caught on, says Jack Krumholz, who is now managing director of the Glover Park Group, a registered lobbying firm in Washington that has some clients in the tech sector. “In the earlier days, there was definitely an education hurdle, where I had to spend time bringing people up to speed before we could even start talking about an issue. Now, there are people in Congress who truly understand technology and serve as touchstones to help other lawmakers become well versed on topics.”

He adds that the government’s technology gap is being bridged naturally, because a growing number of lawmakers and their staffers have personal experience using technology and are interested in how it can be applied in government.

Fred Humphries, managing director of U.S. government affairs at Microsoft, has also seen lawmakers becoming more tech-savvy. “Look at their campaigns alone and how they are using technology to reach out to [prospective] voters. They integrate maps and instant messaging and social networking and databases to inform and educate them,” he says.

He notes that legislators are asking tough questions about cybersecurity, privacy and health IT. Their constituents want them to weigh in on those issues, Humphries says.

Putting tech knowledge to work

Many of the issues facing government today heavily involve technology, and Seely Brown says technology leaders have to take part in those debates. As an example, he points to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s call for dramatic changes in health care IT. “You’re going to need people who understand the underlying digital infrastructure and how you’re going to share medical information across millions of receivers to grasp the magnitude of this situation,” he says.

Rick Blum is coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, an Arlington, Va.-based coalition of media groups promoting policies to help ensure that the government is accessible, accountable and open. He says the Freedom of Information Act, which addresses how the government handles citizens’ requests for public records, is another area where tech-savvy politicians could have an impact.

The Freedom of Information Act “could work much better if the right technology was brought to government agencies. Some [agencies] are still keeping track of requests by handwritten forms. These agencies need guidance from lawmakers that have a vision and know how technology can be used to automate the system,” he says. The outcome would be a citizenry that would be able to make more informed decisions because the government’s information would be more accurate and up to date.

Blum says technology could transform a wide spectrum of transparency issues. “The 9/11 Commission recommended that the federal government learn to share information amongst themselves and the public. That’s all about the underlying systems,” he says. In addition, there are large IT infrastructure projects under way at various agencies, including the Department of Justice and the National Archives, that would benefit from intelligent oversight by legislators and other elected officials.

“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.

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 [email protected].


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