A Guide on Breaking Into Technology Policy

by on October 10, 2017 · 0 comments

In recent months, I’ve come across a growing pool of young professionals looking to enter the technology policy field. Although I was lucky enough to find a willing and capable mentor to guide me through a lot of the nitty gritty, a lot of these would-be policy entrepreneurs haven’t been as lucky. Most of them are keen on shifting out of their current policy area, or are newcomers to Washington, D.C. looking to break into a technology policy career track. This is a town where there’s no shortage of sage wisdom, and while much of it still remains relevant to new up-and-comers, I figured I would pen these thoughts based on my own experiences as a relative newcomer to the D.C. tech policy community.

I came to D.C. in 2013, originally spurred by the then-recent revelations of mass government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. That event led me to the realization that the Internet was fragile, and that engaging in the battle of ideas in D.C. might be a career calling. So I packed up and moved to the nation’s capital, intent on joining the technology policy fray. When I arrived, however, I was immediately struck by the almost complete lack of jobs in, and focus on, technology issues in libertarian circles.

Through a series of serendipitous and fortuitous circumstances, I managed to ultimately break into a field that was still a small and relatively under-appreciated group. What we lacked in numbers and support we had to make up for in quality and determined effort. Although the tech policy community has grown precipitously in recent years, this is still a relatively niche policy vocation relative to other policy tracks. That means there’s a lot of potential for rapid professional growth—if you can manage to get your foot in the door.

So if you’re interested in breaking into technology policy, here are some thoughts that might be of help.

Adapting to the Shifting Sands

My own mentor, Mercatus Senior Fellow Adam Thierer, wrote what I consider the defining guide to breaking into the technology policy arena. Before jumping into the depths of policy, I used his insights in that article to help wrap my head around the ins-and-outs of this field. The broad takeaway is that you should learn from those who came before you. Intellectual humility is important in any profession, and tech policy is no different. Even in this still-young and growing field, there’s an exceptionally robust body of work that is worth parsing through. That means, first and foremost, reading. A lot.

Many of these pieces are going to touch on a broad range of disciplines. Law review articles, technical analyses, regulatory comments, and economic research play an important role in informing the many and varied debates in the tech policy field. While a degree in law or economics isn’t a prerequisite for working in this space, you’ll definitely need to do your homework. Having an understanding of the interdisciplinary work being done in tech policy can be the difference between a good analyst and a great analyst.

Distinguishing yourself in the field also requires embracing the inherent dynamism of this issue space. Things can change a lot, and quickly. The rate of technological change in the modern era is rapid and unceasing—changes that are reflected in the policy arena. If you’re going to keep up with the pace, you’ll not only have to consistently read (a lot), you’ll have to be passionate about the learning. For some, that may be daunting; for those who live for perpetual motion in policy, it can be exciting and energizing. If you’re uncomfortable with that level of dynamism and prefer something a bit more certain and steady, then this probably isn’t the career track for you.

If you yearn for the constantly shifting sands, however, then you’re going to have to read, read, read, and then read some more.

Once you’ve done the reading, you’ll have to start thinking about how, or whether, you want to specialize. Adam notes this explicitly in his piece: specialization matters. I tend to agree. However, what you decide to specialize in is less straightforward. Because this field is ever-changing, the opportunities for specialization are also changing, with a lot of issues intermingling with one another and blurring the lines of previously distinct areas.

Telecommunications, for example, is technically an area of specialization for tech policy. However, even that category has become quite broad and now very often overlaps with newer emerging technology issues. As an example, working on spectrum issues—previously the purview of analysts looking at the traditional media marketplace (television, radio, etc.)—now involves a host of other non-telecommunications issues, such as autonomous and connected vehicles, small microcube satellite constellations delivering Internet service, low-altitude commercial drone traffic management, and much more. Specialization just isn’t what it used to be, and as the policy landscape continues to change relative to the emergence of new technologies, would-be tech policy analysts will need to be flexible and adaptive in considering what issues merit engagement.

In short, read with an eye towards specializing, but be prepared to adapt when things change; and when they inevitably do, get ready to read some more and specialize anew.

Understanding the Political Landscape

You may already have strongly-held political opinions. Then again, maybe not. Either way, it’s important to understand the who’s who of this space, where they come down on their philosophical approaches to technology governance, and how each ideological tribe thinks about the issues. Because tech policy doesn’t elicit the same type of partisanship more commonly associated with traditional issues like health policy and labor policy, you may be surprised to discover who your common bedfellows are.

There are some issue-specific exceptions to this. The debate over Net Neutrality comes to mind as a particularly controversial flashpoint, largely divided down partisan lines. In general, however, there’s relatively little hyper-partisanship in technology policy debates. Technological progress and innovation are generally viewed positively across the political spectrum. As a result, the discussions surrounding issues like AI, autonomous vehicles, and other emerging technologies seldom involve disagreement over whether such advances should be permitted—though again, there are exceptions—and instead boil down to issues related to the specific regulations that will govern their deployment. Ultimately, the discourse tends to gravitate towards the political center and disagreements are largely confined to issues over regulatory governance: the variety (what types of rules), source (who governs), and magnitude (how restrictive or permissive) of regulations. To figure out where your sympathies lie, you’ll first need to make sense of the political terrain by identifying the major players in technology policy circles.

To that end, I definitely suggest you take a look at this great landscape analysis from Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Rob classifies the tech policy crowd into 8 camps:

  • Cyber-Libertarians believe the Internet can get along just fine without the nations, institutions, and other “weary giants of flesh and steel” of the pre-Internet world;
  • Social Engineers are proponents of the Internet’s promise as an educational and communications tool, but tend to belie its economic benefits;
  • Free Marketers believe in the Internet’s power as a liberating force for markets and individuals, and are generally skeptical of government involvement;
  • Moderates are “staunchly and unabashedly” in favor of technological developments, but are supportive of government involvement in promoting and accelerating these developments;
  • Moral Conservatives tend to view the Internet and emerging technologies as nefarious dens of vice that are accelerating the decline of traditional cultural norms and etiquette, and are supportive of government efforts to reverse that decline; and
  • Old Economy Regulators don’t believe there is anything unique about these new technological tools, and believe restrictive pre-Internet regulatory frameworks can work just as well when applied to these new digital technologies.

Rob also ropes in the “Tech Companies and Trade Associations” and “Bricks and Mortars” groups, but I leave these aside as they tend to fall slightly outside the traditional policy analysis space associated with nonprofits, academic institutions, and advocacy groups. Going by Rob’s classification, I used to throw oscillate between associating with the “Cyber-Libertarian” and “Free marketers” tribes. In recent years, however, I’ve come to move quite solidly into the “Moderate” camp.

Wherever you think you fall, be sure not to ignore the work of “non-aligned” organizations and individuals—the best tech policy analysts are those who know both sides of a debate inside and out. Getting to know the major dividing lines between these groups is key to understanding the nuances involved in tech policy debates, and Rob’s piece is an excellent starting point for newcomers to get a sense of where these disagreements rest.

Framing the Issues

As discussed previously, one of the defining characteristics of this policy field is its dynamic nature. An issue you thought you had nailed down on Monday could be completely flipped on its head by Friday. That’s why it’s so important to consider how you think about these issues. A general framework or taxonomy will help, and different analysts think about these issues differently.

For example, some people look at technology issues through the lens of privacy; others, through the lens of cybersecurity. Personally, I think that single-issue lenses tend to miss the fundamentally multi-faceted nature of this issue space. That’s why I look at tech policy through not a lens, but a kaleidoscope, with each emerging technology presenting unique privacy, cybersecurity, safety, regulatory, and economic challenges and benefits.

All emerging technologies present balancing concerns between these equities. Autonomous vehicles will undoubtedly save lives, but may present greater concerns for privacy and cybersecurity. Commercial drones could likely decrease the costs for delivering goods or open up a renaissance in air transportation, but regulatory barriers and safety concerns present formidable obstacles to adoption. In short, I don’t think there’s any one “lens” through which it’s best to see these technologies. How you decide to approach an issue should ultimately be governed by how you balance the many tradeoffs associated with a new technology, and whether you prefer to use a “lens” or a “kaleidoscope.”

At the Niskanen Center, that “kaleidoscope” approach involves employing a framework that  touches on four general issue “buckets”: Regulatory Governance, Emerging Technologies, the Digital Economy, and Cyber Society.

“Regulatory Governance” focuses on an examination of how rules and regulations can manage new emerging technologies. This bucket informs our basic principles and overarching perspective on technology policy (best encapsulated as support for a “soft law” regime), and directly informs our engagement on specific “Emerging Technologies,” such as genomics, AI, autonomous vehicles, and other emerging technologies.

The other two buckets—”The Digital Economy” and “Cyber Society”—involve areas in which there is a much greater degree of overlap and intermingling (copyright, “Future of Work” issues, online free speech, digital due process, government surveillance, etc.). These are areas where the lines between tech policy and other, more traditional policy work are much “fuzzier.” This leads us to an important point worth addressing if you’re thinking about jumping into this field: what is, and is not, tech policy?

Thinking About What Isn’t Tech Policy

Different analysts and scholars will disagree about the contours here, so I’ll caveat my thoughts on the “not-tech policy” space by noting that these are purely my own biases. What I consider “tech policy” will probably differ from what other individuals and organizations would group under that header. A lot can be said here, so I’ll just focus on one particular area that is often grouped under the tech policy banner, but which I would not consider tech policy proper: the gig economy.

Take Uber. Uber is a smartphone app. In that sense, it’s technology. However, the issues affected by its use are more relevant to labor, tax, welfare, and traditional regulatory policy analysis—the role of contract work in society, tax classification for part-time laborers, portability of benefits, and barriers to market entry, for example. Although the regulatory component is definitely an issue related to tech policy, it’s not clear that the regulatory issues are technology-specific. This makes for reasonable disagreement about whether gig economy issues, which would also include services like Airbnb and TaskRabbit, are appropriately classified as primarily technology policy.

Ultimately, I see the gig economy as an area that is fundamentally about connecting unused or under-utilized capital to higher-value uses (in the case of Uber, connecting vehicles that would otherwise remain idle with passengers looking for transportation services). While the underlying technology that makes much of the gig economy possible (smartphone apps and digital communications technology) gives the appearance that these issues are actually about technology, the real policy implications are less technology-specific than other areas of tech policy, such as AI, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and commercial drones.

That having been said, there’s plenty of cases to be made for tech policy to include the gig economy. The takeaway here, however, is that technology is literally eating the modern world, and pretty much all traditional policy spaces are now, in some respect, intertwined with tech policy. As such, we have to draw a dividing line somewhere, otherwise “technology policy” loses any sort of substantive meaning as a distinct field of study.

So if you’re thinking about a career in tech policy broadly, but have a particular interest in, e.g., gig economy issues, it’s worth asking what precisely draws you to the issue. If you’re primarily interested in its impact on labor markets, taxes, or regulatory barriers, then tech policy might not be what you had in mind.

Next Steps

So after you’ve read a bit, focused in on an area of interest, developed a sense of the lay of the political landscape, and put some thought into how you think about framing your analytical approach, what next? Eli Dourado, formerly the director of the Technology Policy Program at Mercatus and now the head of global policy and communications at Boom, offered some succinct thoughts on actually getting involved in this field.

“First, get started now.”

Just start doing technology policy.

Write about it every day. Say unexpected things; don’t just take a familiar side in a drawn-out debate. Do something new. What is going to be the big tech policy issue two years from now? Write about that. Let your passion show.

The tech policy world is small enough — and new ideas rare enough — that doing this will get you a following in our community.

“Second, get in touch.”

These are both great pieces of advice. If you’re really interested in jumping into tech policy, then you’re going to want to start writing. Read as much as you can and get up to speed on the issues that interest you. Then start blogging and editorializing your thoughts. These days, the costs of starting your own blog are primarily just your time and effort, and there are plenty of easy-to-use and free services out there that you can take advantage of.

Once you’ve started writing, start connecting with a wider audience via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. But don’t limit yourself to the venue of cyberspace forums. Reach out to established analysts by email and get their thoughts and feedback. Networking is key, and if you’re not doing it, you’re not doing half the work. You might have the greatest tech policy thoughts since Marc Andreessen wrote Software is Eating the World (which, incidentally, you should also add to your reading list), but if no one is reading your work, it doesn’t really matter. Just as you need to read, read, read, so too should you network, network, network, and then network some more.

Reach out, and get in touch with people in the field—especially those of us in D.C. If you’re serious about your craft and you’re putting in the time and effort to position yourself as a young tech policy professional, there are plenty of us who are more than happy to have a conversation with you. Indeed, like a lot of people in this field, I couldn’t have made it to where I am if not for the willingness of more established professionals like Adam taking the time to chat with me.

So reach out, network, and engage with those scholars and analysts whose work you follow.  A casual conversation could very easily be the beginning of a new career in tech policy.

Concluding Thoughts

So if after reading all that you’re still considering a career in tech policy, here are some final thoughts for consideration.

First, be open to the possibility that you may be wrong.

Tech policy debates involve a lot of nuance, but there’s also a lot of surprising agreement. Given the constant evolution of technology, at some point you’ll undoubtedly be confronted with a scenario in which you need to reassess your priors. (I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way on the issue of surveillance. Just take a look at some of my writings earlier in my career and compare them with more recent pieces.) You shouldn’t constantly sway with the winds of compromise, but nor should you see every policy battle as a hill worth dying on.

Second, there’s no such thing as too much reading or networking.

This is worth reiterating, over and over, because it’s important, and there’s no shortcut here. There’s always more to read to get up to speed on tech issues, and chances are you’ll never know it all. So read, read, read, and when you’ve had enough of reading, try switching it up with some outreach and networking. There’s a fair number of people working in tech policy, but it’s still a relatively small, close-knit community. Once you meet a handful of people, it’s easy enough to catapult yourself to introductions to the rest of us. Jobs in tech policy, especially in D.C., are still tough to come by, but it’s a growing field, and the more people you know, the more likely you’ll be well-positioned to take advantage of opportunities.

Finally, have something to say.

This point is worth an anthology all its own, and cannot be over-emphasized: don’t be a policy parrot. Have something to say—not just something to say, but something new and unique. That counts doubly for having actual policy solutions. There’s plenty of people who default to the “let’s have a conversation” school of thought—don’t be one of them. Your job as an analyst is to parse the details of a contentious issue and apply your expertise to provide real, actionable recommendations on the appropriate course of action. Have real recommendations and actual solutions and you’ll set yourself apart from the run-of-the-mill tech policy analyst. Always remember: the difference between doing something right and doing nothing at all, is doing something half-assed. Don’t be the half-assed tech policy parrot.

Don’t get discouraged; establishing your brand takes time. But if you’re serious about giving tech policy a go and you put in the effort, there will be opportunities to make a name for yourself. So read, write, reach out, and offer something unique to the discussion. If you can do that, the sky’s the limit.

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