February 1, 2014

More on public policy

Occasionally I take my public policy experience out for some exercise. Last week I wrote about privacy and network neutrality. In this post I’ll survey a few more subjects.

1. Censorship worries me, a lot. A classic example is Vietnam, which basically has outlawed online political discussion.

And such laws can have teeth. It’s hard to conceal your internet usage from an inquisitive government.

2. Software and software related patents are back in the news. Google, which said it was paying $5.5 billion or so for a bunch of Motorola patents, turns out to really have paid $7 billion or more. Twitter and IBM did a patent deal as well. Big numbers, and good for certain shareholders. But this all benefits the wider world — how?

As I wrote 3 1/2 years ago:

The purpose of legal intellectual property protections, simply put, is to help make it a good decision to create something.

Why does “securing … exclusive Right[s]” to the creators of things that are patented, copyrighted, or trademarked help make it a good decision for them to create stuff? Because it averts competition from copiers, thus making the creator a monopolist in what s/he has created, allowing her to at least somewhat value-price her creation.

I.e., the core point of intellectual property rights is to prevent copying-based competition. By way of contrast, any other kind of intellectual property “right” should be viewed with great suspicion.

That Constitutionally-based principle makes as much sense to me now as it did then. By way of contrast, “Let’s give more intellectual property rights to big corporations to protect middle-managers’ jobs” is — well, it’s an argument I view with great suspicion.

But I find it extremely hard to think of a technology industry example in which development was stimulated by the possibility of patent protection. Yes, the situation may be different in pharmaceuticals, or for gadgeteering home inventors, but I can think of no case in which technology has been better, or faster to come to market, because of the possibility of a patent-law monopoly. So if software and business-method patents were abolished entirely — even the ones that I think could be realistically adjudicatedI’d be pleased.

3. In November, 2008 I offered IT policy suggestions for the incoming Obama Administration, especially: 

  1. Pick the right Chief Technology Officer.
  2. Fix the government technology contracting process in general.
  3. Fix the air traffic control system in particular.
  4. Generally take a businesslike approach to government IT. Obama’s focus on making government “transparent” and searchable would be just one byproduct of that effort.
  5. Continue to beef up internal search and knowledge management (remember the FBI agent who guessed the 9/11 plans, but couldn’t communicate his ideas to anybody who cared).
  6. Write privacy laws of the sort that will, for example, allow electronic health records to be adopted without great fear of misuse. (I have some strong opinions as to what form those laws should take.)
  7. Drastically beef up math education!! (Science too, but math is especially important.) This takes leadership to convince people it’s CRUCIAL to be numerate, perhaps even more than it takes specific policy initiatives. Little else is as important.


… we need an experienced technology implementation leader to:

  • Recommend major changes in government IT contracting. Right now, information technology is bought at the wrong level of granularity, too coarse and too fine at once. Private sector CIOs make broad technology architecture decisions, then make incremental purchases as needed. Public sector IT managers, however, are generally compelled to make purchases on a “project” basis, which allows neither the sanity of broad-scale planning nor the economies and adaptability of just-in-time acquisition.
  • Establish best practices in a broad range of IT areas. Obama’s “transparency” initiative involves pushing the state of the art in public-facing technology for search, query, and audio/video, at a minimum. Other areas of major technical challenge include internal search, knowledge management, and social networking; disaster robustness; planning in the face of political budgeting uncertainty; numbers-based management without the benefit of a profit/loss statement … and the list could easily be twice as long.
  • Interact with the private sector. From electronic health records to the general supply chain, there are huge opportunities for public/private interoperability, quite apart from the obvious customer/vendor relationships the government has with the IT industry.
  • Improve training, recruiting, and retention. Anywhere government needs employees whose skills are also in high demand in the private sector, government pay scales cause difficulties. IT is a top area for that problem. Outstanding leadership is needed to overcome it.

Little of that actually happened.

Kudos if you noticed the link — which I herewith repeat — to what I wrote about privacy in 2006. 🙂

In particular — and even after the HealthCare.gov fiasco — I think few voters or legislators understand how incredibly broken government IT contracting is. Almost all major projects go through a five-stage process:

Re-competes usually follow as well.

And so government IT is subject to extreme forms of two inevitable project killers:

Procurement cycles take years, and in the worst cases decades. Project specifications are often fixed until the next procurement, which is often 7-10 years down the road. This, to put it mildly, is the opposite of agility, and widespread project failure ensues.


One Response to “More on public policy”

  1. GregW on February 5th, 2014 4:09 pm

    The article you reference from which you got the $7 billion estimate for Google/Motorola’s patents doesn’t seem to include the $3billion in cash Google acquired from Motorola, nor the tax benefits.

    NYTimes estimates Google only spent $3.2 billion on the patents: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/did-google-really-lose-on-its-original-motorola-deal/

    Cellphone news site BGR.com estimates the patent cost was as low as $1.6 billion:

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