Advocating for the Intersection of Policy and Technology at SXSW

The Engine Advocacy crew is on its way home from its first SXSW. We found ourselves among friends there: entrepreneurs trying to build partnerships, consumers looking for the next great app for business or personal use, investors in search of the next high growth or long-run bet, reporters who actively engage with new media channels, and activists who, like us, want to advance policy that fosters new technologies and technology startups.

Engine’s panel featured a cohort of voices that had been active against SOPA and PIPA -- Andrew Rasiej, the chair of NY Tech Meetup; Mark Stanley, the leading communications voice from the Center for Democracy and Technology; Laurent Crenshaw, the legislative director for Rep. Darrell Issa; Mike McGeary, Engine co-founder and director; and Boonsri Dickinson from Business Insider, who moderated the panel.

The panel was both a discussion of the tactics that made the SOPA/PIPA protests so effective, and of how to use those tactics and others to mobilize the SOPA and PIPA protesters to take a proactive stance on tech policy issues in the future. This has consistently been a sticking point,for all types of advocacy -- how do you take the momentum gained from one urgent campaign, and turn it into sustained, positive action to advance a long term agenda? While the tech community might find it easy to block or defend against a piece or type of legislation, we have yet to determine the best advocacy tools for actively promoting legislation we like.

Our stance: the community needs compelling data that it can take to members of Congress to expand the knowledge on specific legislation, and we need to connect members of Congress directly with startups that employ their constituents.

In essence, we need to facilitate a really effective conversation.

This became more and more evident as we circulated the conference, meeting with entrepreneurs who were pitching innovative, useful products and services and building the businesses to support them; and seeing a fundamental disconnect between this sphere and that of policymakers. This was cemented when we met with Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), who restated his commitment to assisting startups and fostering high-growth businesses in Kansas, and throughout the country. He highlighted the divide between the tech and non-tech communities by pointing out his own sense of being an outsider sitting at the table with a bunch of tech folks. This discomfort, which seems to be a common problem for members of Congress, clearly stems from a lack of effective communication.

The best possible outcome would be to educate policymakers about what we do; to make technology less alien, and to present them with hard data that proves the overarching value of what we do. The Kauffman Foundation leads on researching these issues, but there are many other groups working toward this goal. We’re working on some exciting research as well that we think can help shift the debate. This easy, effective communication we’re talking about may not happen overnight, but we’re confident that it will happen. Getting together in Austin was a great next step in the process. We look forward to the next phase -- the action phase -- as we move forward.