"riding the wave"

A Step Toward Bridging the Tech Policy Divide
Blog Post
June 22, 2015

Technology is among the most important forces shaping public policy, yet it remains to be seen to whether it will do more harm than good. In some ways, the intersection of information technology and public policy is brimming with opportunity; more than ever before, municipal governments are leveraging technology and data to streamline services. At the same time, one need not look further than recent data breaches in the federal government to see how information technology can undermine government and personal security.

Whether the intersection of technology and public policy yields positive outcomes will hinge largely on the ability of leaders in both realms to understand the perspective of, and collaborate with, partners in the other. Unfortunately, most technology experts have failed to grasp policymaking, and many policymakers do not understand the relevance of technological change to their work. What’s more, U.S. public policy schools have dedicated little energy to filling this gap. The result is perilous: tomorrow’s leaders need dual competencies to leverage technology for good, but they lack a clear source to turn to develop these skills.

To fill this gap, New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI), through a strategy titled “Bridging the Tech-Policy Divide,” is creating a curriculum focused on the intersection of information technology and public policy that can be federated at schools across the country. “Riding the Wave,” a case study about how Congressman Seth Moulton’s 2014 campaign leveraged digital and social media, is the first piece in this curriculum. Drawing on interviews with senior campaign officials, the case—which was authored by writer David Tannenwald in partnership with OTI Civic Innovation Fellow Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman—begins with Moulton trailing the incumbent, John Tierney, by more than 50 points. The case then describes Moulton’s comeback with a focus on the diverse technologies that he and his team employed, how it melded those technologies with more traditional campaigning techniques, and how those technologies interacted with the democratic process. Our hope is that the case will stir student thinking about the kinds of competencies they need to lead 21st century organizations.

Yet one case study is a drop in the bucket compared to the larger dialogue that needs to take place surrounding the interplay of technology and public policy. It is therefore even more important for this case study—and the remainder of the curriculum that follows—to catalyze a broader conversation about how government officials can become more technologically savvy and, ultimately, more effective. And it is imperative to begin this conversation now because technology is waiting for policymakers to catch up.

David Tannenwald has written for Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Magazine, SB Nation, The Kennedy School Review, and Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. He graduated from Harvard College in 2008 and lives in Cambridge, MA.