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The Need for Technical Expertise in Government
Friday, January 6, 2012
Earlier this year, Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would strengthen the technical expertise of the Federal Communications Commission. The bill, known as the “
FCC Technical Expertise Capacity Heightening Act
,” would permit each of the Commissioners’ offices to hire technology advisors to assist with the myriad engineering challenges confronting the FCC, whether it be
. As Senator Snowe stated, "At a time when citizens are demanding more effective and efficient government, this legislation will ensure the FCC is sufficiently equipped, both legally and technically, to craft sound policy.”
This is a brilliant move. While the FCC’s Bureaus each have many extremely smart and talented engineers on staff, some with the prized combination of an engineering degree and a JD, the
have traditionally relied upon the advice of legal advisors for almost all policy matters. As bright and talented as these advisors may be, most, if not all, lack formal technical training. As the Senators stated when introducing this legislation, such a technology knowledge gap, "if left unaddressed, could continue to hamper American innovation and competitiveness."
It is imperative that Chairman, the Commissioners, and the FCC in general have access to accurate, reliable, and objective technical advice and information. Industry lawyers and lobbyists oftentimes bring in their own engineers and technical staff to persuade the Commission to adopt a certain policy or take a particular action. The Commissioners must have the ability to thoughtfully engage in technical debates and be able to separate engineering facts from engineering opinions.
However, the proposed legislation does not go far enough. It should be broadened to cover not only the FCC, but other Federal government bodies as well. According to
collected in March 2010, there are nearly 85,000 engineers, in various capacities, employed by the Federal government, with the majority classified as general engineers and most working for the Department of Defense. This is a relatively small percentage of the 2.65 million people working for the government, yet their technical and operational expertise is increasingly important as technology becomes an even more influential part of our society.
The Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and its Antitrust Division, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and similarly situated organizations should also be permitted to hire more technical experts with engineering and computer science degrees. They, too, need to have solid advice as they address novel and complex challenges arising daily in the Internet ecosystem. Moreover, the Legislative Branch itself should hire more young men and women with technical expertise to staff important committees that have jurisdiction over telecommunications and the Internet.
There is no time in the history of American society when technology has been as important as it is today. More technical knowledge about spectrum usage, Internet infrastructure, broadband, and how digital communications systems work would certainly lead to better public policy. No doubt, a well-informed government is absolutely vital for innovation, competitiveness, and democracy.
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