The Role of Technical Experts in Policy Debates

This is my first posting on this new blog.  So, I thought I would take the occasion to introduce myself and describe the kind of postings that I hope to generate.

I’m a computer programmer and electrical engineer who drifted into the policy world.  I do a variety of consulting in the wireless, telecommunications, and IT areas.  Before becoming a consultant I worked for the House Commerce Committee and the FCC.  Before that I did application and systems programming and some digital design.

I expect that my posts will fall into two categories:  (1) reflections on technology and its implications for policy and (2) discussion of policy issues.  I will try to keep these two topics as separate as I can.  I believe these two topics should be separated because technical specialists can play two different roles.  One role is giving information to policy analysts or decision makers so that those individuals can analyze issues and decisions using their own views of policy but as if they understood the technology and the relevant choices as well as the expert does.  Of course, in some cases this is an almost impossible standard to meet.  Nevertheless, there are occasions when simple technical insights can assist decision makers.  When I was at the FCC I was amazed at the lack of knowledge of the existing industry—particularly the computer industry—by the people who were making important rules for that industry.  I recall that I had an acoustically coupled terminal on my desk and a relatively senior and very smart lawyer walked into my office and said, “What’s that?”  I had had such devices in my office at least 5 or 6 years earlier and I thought these devices were the poster children for the Carterfone decision.  So, I was quite surprised and a little troubled by his ignorance.

When I worked at the FCC and the Hill, I arranged for some demonstrations of state-of-the-art and emerging technologies.  I still feel good about those demonstrations.

I also felt that there was relatively little appreciation for the harmful impacts of slowing innovation or of reducing the incentives for innovation.  Part of the special knowledge of technical experts is a vision (albeit quite blurred) of some the possible future benefits of technologies not fully developed.

If technical experts do not try to separate technical analysis and exposition from policy analysis, then everything they say is suspect.  (Given that these experts are human everything they say is suspect anyway, what I mean is “even more suspect than usual”).

I plan on leaving posts open for comments and reading and responding to those comments.  I welcome suggestions of topics for future posts.