No matter who wins the 2016 election, the next president and Congress will face difficult economic and innovation policy challenges, ranging from stagnant productivity growth, to questions about government limitations on encryption, to building a workforce with the skills needed in the modern economy. ITIF hosted a panel of members of Congress and business leaders at the Democratic National Convention to discuss how the next administration can work with Congress to address these issues and foster innovation and U.S. competitiveness.
The conversation was high-spirited and wide-ranging, covering topics from trade and tax policy, to infrastructure, to broadband access, to education. In opening the panel with a discussion of trade, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) described how the United States is competing with the world, and he honed in on the importance of connecting with the average American on the need for policies that encourage both the invention and manufacturing of products on U.S. soil. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) echoed this sentiment, describing a poster that his business once had reading, “we are competing with everyone, everywhere, every day, forever.” Although that is an intimidating idea, he said he believes this doesn’t just apply to businesses, but also to the country, and that Congress should be mindful of global competition when creating technology and innovation policies in the future. Panelists agreed that the economic policies and development of the nations with which the United States competes should not be taken lightly.
Overall, the panelists also agreed that there was a need to more clearly articulate the message that tech innovation is important to all parts of the nation, not just tech hubs like Silicon Valley. Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA) argued that educating lawmakers on technology and innovation issues is just as important as educating the workforce itself, because the hesitancy seen on certain policy matters is a result of the policymakers not fully understanding the concepts and therefore being unsure of how to move forward. The senior vice president and general counsel for Amazon, David Zapolsky, stressed the importance of continuing to communicate in order to better foster engagement from the consumer as well as the policymaker.
Zapolsky noted that the United States has actually done a fantastic job at fostering innovation; the key now is to continue to do so. Conveying the importance and relevance of technology investment to the lives of individual Americans is of vital importance, the panelists agreed, as it will affect nearly every aspect of our country’s economy, society, and global standing. As Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny stated, innovation could be a real solution to a variety of problems plaguing both the public and private sectors. One of her goals is to build consumer trust with ideas like “privacy by design,” as well as through improved STEM educational programs nationwide.
There was agreement among the panelists on the importance of STEM education and worker training to prepare Americans for tech jobs. Improving and propagating such programs needs to begin with federal support, said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. The United States is not competitive enough right now when it comes to computer science education and related high tech fields, and both the public and the private sectors need to dedicate more time and funds to getting those classes into every grade level and every school. Simply having these courses be available more widely, Representative Delbene pointed out, will inform more young people in rural communities about these lesser known but incredibly important job opportunities.
Representative DelBene also warned that that America appears to have a growing aversion to risk and that this could limit the development of good innovation policy. The panelists discussed how to better enable innovation, including within the federal government. One important pathway to innovation is finding effective ways to provide public access to governmental data, which Representative Kilmer believes could ultimately make the government more efficient and provide better value to taxpayers.
Representative Scott Peters (D-CA) stated that one important goal for lawmakers moving forward is to encourage an improved culture of innovation in the U.S. government as a whole. Having more technologists in the government would also be beneficial to further policymaking, Commissioner McSweeny noted, so that the FTC can more effectively enact its three primary tenants of fostering trust, competition, and smart government.
ITIF President Rob Atkinson concluded the panel by reminding everyone that although there sometimes seems to be roadblocks in place, legislation is still being successfully passed, and there is much to look forward to in terms of both legislation and innovation in the future.