After 48 hours of serious coding work that seemed more suited for Stanford's campus, a group of staffers, bleary-eyed and tired, approached their boss with a new creation. Dubbed "Madison," they were set to launch a new technological solution that would allow for the drafting of Internet crowd-sourced legislation. This was not typical D.C. at work. These were no ordinary staffers and they worked for no ordinary member. As they set to launch Madison, one staffer said to his boss he was concerned that if too many people tried to use it, the program would crash. In response, the member of Congress replied, "Like most things that are a 1.0 or Beta, our assumption is that we'll learn from this."
This story seems far-fetched. It is far from the impression that Congress is made up of a bunch of luddites who don't think like technologists or get technology. As someone who sits between both worlds, I am often asked if there are members of Congress who "get it." And from now on, I will tell them the above true story about Congressman Darrell Issa from southern California.
It may seem odd that I, a loyal Democrat, am singing the praises of Congressman Issa, often seen as one of the more sharply partisan and attack-dog Republicans in Congress. In his role as Chairman of the Oversight committee, Issa is one of the lead Republican critics of the Obama administration, from the Fast and Furious program to the recent GSA scandal. However, as much as I consider myself a true-blue Democrat, I am also a staunch technologist. The technologist in me has fallen in love with how Issa is revolutionizing the relationship between Congress and technology.
It is no accident that Congressman Issa has emerged in this role. He is an entrepreneur -- one who founded a highly successful vehicle anti-theft company that made him a multimillionaire. In this role, he became active in the Consumer Electronics Association, eventually serving as chairman of the influential trade group. He stepped down from this role after his election to Congress in 2001. To this day he holds 37 patents due to the fruits of his labor.
Issa has become a driving force in bringing technological thinking to the halls of Capitol Hill. He just gets it -- something you often hear people who work for innovative companies around town talking about. From how he uses technology to his actual policy positions, Issa has emerged as a clear leader in D.C.'s tech scene.
Just look at his use of Web technologies. He is not only an advocate for more open government, but is also someone who understands how technology can empower two-way communication between Congress and the voting public. For example, his Twitter feed displays a true conversation with the public that both promotes the member and seeks advice from the Twitterverse. Most members of Congress use Twitter solely as a self-promotional tool, but Issa knows the power it can have in creating a conversation. The Oversight Committee website is updated in almost immediate time, with video and audio content that far surpass the online resources offered by other committees. Simply put, he is redefining the way Congress communicates with the public.
Beyond his use of technology, Issa has also emerged as a leader on technology policy, even on some of the most wonkish of issues. He helped coin the term, "Bring in the nerds" when pushing back against the lack of Internet architecture experts testifying at a hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation. Introduced in 2011, SOPA was universally opposed by the Internet community, which argued it fundamentally undermined the architecture of the Internet in how it tried to stop copyright-infringing activity online. The bill seemed likely to breeze through Congress, however, until Congressman Issa partnered with other strong technologists such as Senator Wyden and Representatives Chaffetz, Polis and Loftgren to defeat the legislation.
I asked Issa about his role as a leading technologist in Congress.
"I try to bring a lean startup mentality to my work making government more efficient, open and participatory," he said.
"This technology-centered approach, however, is disruptive to the government bureaucracy and many in Congress because it demands experimentation, data-driven analysis and actually listening to our users -- the American people -- about how to make government work better for them. That's why social media and innovation are so central to my work: we in Congress do not have all the answers, but we can have a relentless drive to adapt technology to let taxpayers re-engage with government on their own terms. I firmly believe that just as new technologies are revolutionizing nearly every aspect of life in America, nascent tools like Madison show the transformative impact technology will have on government, and ultimately overcome the inertia of the bureaucracy."
Godspeed in your quest, Rep. Issa. Godspeed. The technology community is with you.