The challenges in implementing tech policy and what government can do

By boris, January 30, 2018

Over the past couple of years, I have been asked to give input on tech policy for all levels of government: city, provincial, and federal. This has been both informally and formally through committee work. I feel lucky to live in a country where elected officials seek input from industry to come up with the right set of policies for the tech industry.

For some context, here in Canada, tech policy is mainly focused on how to expand the tech industry as a key pillar in the transformation from a resource-based economy to a knowledge based economy.

From these meetings with government officials, I have developed two take-aways: a) “how complex developing policy is” and b) “how few levers the government actually has to change the trajectory.”

The first challenge is really about understanding input–output models. If I do this, what will be the effect? Often times, there are just not enough stats available, making it tough to even define the status quo. And even when there is a lot of knowledge available about a certain area, the dependencies between different factors are huge and often not fully understood. Economies are simply very complex constructs.

But then, even if one understood the input-output models perfectly, government might not be able to act on the insights. Often this is a matter of jurisdiction (e.g. K-12 education is under provincial authority, not federal in Canada). Sometimes, the political will is lacking to push through unpopular measures. Or, maybe there is simply no budget or fiscal ability.

Given these constraints, what can governments actually do? I think that forward action depends on three levers (and you’ll see that these are not unlike the things that a great CEO needs to focus on for his or her company):

  • Set an inspiring vision: Think about how JFK inspired a whole nation with his Man on the Moon speech or how Canada rallied behind the “Own the Podium” vision for the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
  • Get the best talent onto the team: This is as much about investing into our education systems as embracing immigration and attracting the best and brightest from around the world.
  • Encourage continuous change, forward movement and systems that can change on their own: Instead of trying to develop and plan large, top-down projects that might be out of date by the time they get launched, encourage many small changes and create systems that can adapt themselves.

I have certainly gained a huge appreciation for the complexity of the work that politicians and their staff members do on a daily basis (and for which they are not recognized enough). Hopefully, some of these suggestions will be put into place with a positive impact on society.

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