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The United States doesn’t require any public service, military or the like, of its citizens. However, many people still work in government at some point, whether it’s a clerk job at the beginning of a lawyer’s career or as an educator for a state-run university.
Tech employees, though, are still rare in government and few computer scientists offer any kind of “digital service,” said US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith during an on-stage interview in San Francisco presented by the Commonwealth Club.
“If we’re the country that can make Facebook and Amazon and Twitter, we need them to be in the government on tours of duty,” Smith said.
Smith’s role is to help harness data and advise the president on policy decisions. While many tech workers eye the government with distrust, especially after Edward Snowden’s revelations, Smith’s argument is that tech workers need to be at the table in order to help guide the discussion and be the technical expertise that the United States sorely needs.
For example, Smith sat in on the net neutrality discussions as a technical voice to explain how it worked while the economists and lawyers each presented their viewpoints. The same goes for big plans like fiber connectivity, where there needs to be a tech expert there to help explain how to execute on building these networks to connect Americans who don’t have internet access.
As the government continues to debate topics like encryption and open-source technologies, computer scientists need to be involved in those discussions from the beginning, Smith argues.
“We really want to have tours of duty. It can be six months, four years. It can even be coming into the APIs and working with them,” Smith said.
Smith joined the government because she felt like she had a civic duty. The former VP of Google X was in Africa a year ago when she got an email from Todd Park, the US CTO at the time. 33 days later, Barack Obama called and asked her to come to serve in DC.
“I said it’d be an honor, Mr. President,” Smith said.
She doesn’t condemn tech workers who move to Silicon Valley and dream of building apps. After all, that’s where she came from too. But she does think tech workers should consider spending some time in government because the issues on the horizon for the United States are only going to become more technical.
“In order to form a more perfect union, it includes us and we need to show up,” Smith said.