🪑 technology at the table

one of many seats in the "real world"

When and should people from technology companies participate in public policymaking?

I noticed the revolt online when President-Elect Biden named representatives from Big Tech to his transition team. The inference seemed to be that he is no longer “progressive” if he dares to include representatives from technology companies in the work of the transition. I thought this condemnation generally revealed a shockingly naive appreciation of how policy making is done. I’m just not sure I agree that Biden + his team are “selling out” because they are talking to tech people.

That’s right - I’m not just defending it, I’m also gonna go out on that limb and champion.

Before diving into why we shouldn’t completely reject private voices from public policy tables, it’s worth remembering that many of these individuals previously worked as Democrats - they are veterans of the Obama administration. Personally and politically, they are *aligned* with Biden. 

  • Does working at a technology company make them “bad,” or unable to thoughtfully participate in the policy process? If so, how and why? 

  • Are their positions predictable and unchangeable?

  • Do they have an “evil” secondary agenda? 

  • When are employees their companies (save CEOs)?

  • Is there *any* role for people from tech firms in politics or policy?

The disgust that is being shared begs the question of how you can find a balance, and whether there *is* such a thing. 

So, can someone have political expertise and work at a private tech corporation and sometimes, be a productive participant in public policy activities? My answer: hell yes.

*Of course I have a particular and *pretty major* bias here - after working at the province of Ontario, running part of a think tank, and, oh I don’t know, chairing a federal panel, I spent two years with Airbnb’s public policy team in Canada helping to regulate about 70% of short-term rentals in the country and entering into historic tax agreements. There is still more work to be done there.

My intention (and job) actually wasn’t to actively resist regulation, but to be part of the process - fundamentally, legislation was legitimizing to the business. I learned so much from working with civil servants across orders of government as they worked to regulate home sharing, and witnessed first hand the constant duplication of resources and investment in what was essentially policy replication. I watched “public policy by Google” happen (sometimes right in front of me) and got to participate in high level business decisions around the trade-offs and costs associated with different regulatory regimes, instead of reading about it in a book 8 years later. I could also laugh at comical “comms” strategies that were out of step with the core issues at hand. Reader, I saw it all. 

Share regs to riches

The point: I know this direct experience makes me a more multi-dimensional thinker when it comes to approaching the wicked problems/implications of technology. Having worked at a large tech firm like Airbnb or a teeny one like Delphia doesn’t negate my particular policy expertise, it bolsters it. And I don’t think it would be hideous if Joe Biden asked me to be on his transition team.   

Why? I left that role with a deeper appreciation of the challenges of regulators playing catch up when they muddle through. But sure, scoff at me for being “a lobbyist” and dismiss my views on...literally anything else as a result.

One sweet sip of kool-aid calcified my mind, forbidden fruit banishing me from the traditional policy world. Girl, bye.

The reality is that policy professionals that take on roles at tech firms are building more of a blended expertise that is as-informative to policy design and decisions.

We need to recognize this and decide how to best reconcile these professionals. These people are also in positions to liaise with legal functions (etc) within the firm to build effective compliance mechanisms, and make a candid case for policy change. Ignoring or icing out technology leaders is fundamentally in opposition to inclusive policy making. I think we’re all smart enough to receive their (our) takes with a grain of salt - like any other stakeholder. 

🦄 This mix - the politico/policy/private tech is a little more rare (“unicorn?”) here in Canada, so maybe it feels unfamiliar. Some quick, well-known examples: 

  • David MacNaughton (Canada’s former Ambassador to the United States, now with Palantir) - well, it was found that he broke conflict-of-interest law. Really bad example to start with. But I don’t think all these people are in the same category re: intellectual independence.

  • Robert Asselin (UOttawa/Advisor to the PMO/Blackberry/Business Council of Canada);

  • Jacob Glick (CIRA, CIGI Google, North, Telus);

  • Leslie Church (Google/Ministry of Heritage);

  • Adam Blinick (Conservatives/Uber);

  • John Brodhead (Liberals/Sidewalk Labs);

  • Rachel Curran (Conservatives/Facebook);

  • Kate Purchase (Liberals, Microsoft);

  • Marlene Floyd (Liberals, Microsoft);

  • Kevin Chan (federal public service, Liberals, Facebook).

When does it make sense to consult with tech policy people, and how might we separate or prioritize the fora? 

  • Strategy 

  • Transitions 

  • Budget-making

  • Platform-drafting 

  • Policy design 

  • Implementation 

  • (etc).

While we don’t have as much academia/politics/technology crossover in Canada, we talk about “responsible innovators” ALL the time. Presumably government(s) want to talk *to* them, too.

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Just last week I participated in a fantastic roundtable session hosted by Freshbooks. The session connected small business owners and self-employed people to the Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion + International Trade, MP Rachel Bendayan. Amazingly, no one felt that the federal government was seduced by the voices of SMEs because they hosted the sesh. Later that day, I sat in a roundtable where a rep from Clearview AI tried to suggest to me that putting a picture of a criminal on the news is also “facial recognition.” Guess what? It wasn’t difficult to separate the farce from the functional. 

I think we should be slower to reject tech people as policy advisors in a political setting. 

Should we be cautious about how their perspectives could influence particular decisions? Absolutely. Especially in this recession, I think we’ll see more implicit appeals to “innovation” and maybe even applications of artificial intelligence that can help us “find efficiencies” in the provision of public services. Ugh.

But I also trust our government(s) to not be seduced by sleek Silicon Valley rhetoric, and respect people that have blended professional experiences in a range of policy capacities.

There are different seats at the table, and it doesn’t hurt to have hung out in a few different ones. 

(I know, maybe it’s weird that I am defending this so hard. Maybe it’s because it feels personal.) 

I suppose there is a sort of “purist” position that the private sector has no business at all in the public policy process. Where would that get us? We’d be designing in a vacuum, playing a guessing game. 

In all, it’s worth thinking carefully and openly not just whether, but when there might be space for people with this range of professional experiences to advise governments. 

These considerations are all the more relevant as we anticipate - bated breath - new PIPEDA tomorrow. This legislation was designed to balance legitimate commercial interests with the right to privacy. Spoiler: the government spoke to *gasp* private companies (among many others) when they designed this. Is that “selling out” or just good policy process?  

Policy professionals often claim to value the role of “real world” experience (in fact, I feel like that’s all I heard when I was a graduate student, how I needed “experience” and that was - somehow - the only way to unlock any legitimate insights about this place called “the real world,” but not The Real World). Well, guess what? I went and got it. 

We can’t privilege something (first-hand experience) and then punish people for it.

If anything we need more policy entrepreneurs at the table - people that bridge the (new) two solitudes of technology and public policy and that think differently. 

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*Other - related - issues to think about:

  • Should policy people at tech companies receive equity as part of their remuneration package or disclose how much they have? It can create a perverse incentive that privileges less regulation. 

  • Do we need a more robust lobbyist registry at the federal level (thinking something that is closer to the City of Toronto’s?). 

  • Where do you think all the federal political staffers are going to go work if Erin O’Toole becomes Prime Minister?

*The views expressed in this newsletter are *entirely my own* and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer.