Opinion

Why Biden needs a National Technology Council

The U.S. government needs a more tightly coordinated approach to technology, argues Jonathan Spalter.

Joe Biden

A coordinated effort to approach tech could help the White House navigate the future more easily.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The White House has a National Security Council and a National Economic Council. President-elect Joe Biden should move quickly to establish a National Technology Council.

Consumers are looking to the government to set a coherent and consistent 21st century digital policy that works for them. Millions of Americans still await public investments that will help connect their remote communities to broadband, while millions more — including many families with school-age children — still struggle to afford access.

America's leadership in many new technologies is vital, but not a given: The enormous benefits of 5G, AI, cloud and quantum computing lay ahead, but other nations are threatening U.S. dominance. Meanwhile, our largest digital platforms are facing criticism over misinformation, algorithmic bias and concerns about anticompetitive market dominance, while foreign enemies are invading our government at the highest levels through sophisticated cyber warfare.

From all sides, the status quo leaves too many opportunities untapped and vulnerabilities exposed. This has significant implications for our nation, from jobs and modern health care to national security and global competition. Without greater coordination and leadership from the top, a fast-proliferating warren of competing federal agencies — all with a rightful claim of technology's importance to their work — has no hope of uniting to help our digital economy "build back better."

The National Security Council was created by President Harry Truman in the aftermath of World War II. The National Economic Council was established by President Bill Clinton a mere five days after he first took the oath of office. Both serve essentially the same purpose: They exist to pull together the disparate efforts of a vast federal apparatus and ensure every oar is not just in the water, but pulling vigorously in the same direction on complex, interrelated issues that have far-reaching implications for the nation.

We need this more tightly-coordinated approach in the technology arena. From smart transportation to remote education and health care to the nation's defense, commerce and trade, every agency rightly views technology as central to their work. Equally true: Every American has a rightful claim to a coordinated, ambitious and effective effort from their government.

We don't have that today in the multi-headed, overlapping and often competing technology policy coordination processes, legacy functions like the Office of Science and Technology Policy and a host of more recently created 'C-level' offices (CTO, CIO, CISO, etc.) at work in the White House today.

To offer one example, there are currently 20 federal initiatives relating to 5G network security alone — each with its own set of objectives, its own circle of leaders and partners and its own set of tasks and requests for information and collaboration from industry.

Rather than a growing multiverse of agencies scrambling for the soccer ball, we need a coordinated effort to better ensure the U.S. government's technology leadership can turn on a dime, whether in response to imminent cyber threats, marshaling federal resources to close the digital divide or creating more incentives for private sector innovation and investment.

We need one referee supported by a more streamlined and diverse team that can see the entire field and ensure the best ideas get the time, space and fair attention they require at the highest levels of the White House.

We've done it before. It's been more than two decades since the White House launched an all-out coordination effort on a hugely important technology issue: standing up the Y2K Task Force. Its role was to prevent a global meltdown of digital systems that threatened to imperil everything from air travel and nuclear reactors to credit card expiration dates and social security payments.

From the public's point of view, the turning of the digital calendar to a new millennium was a "non-event." To those of us who did the work — from coordination to coding — it was millions of hours of effort. Every designated representative was at the White House weekly coordinating U.S. preparedness.

It was a Herculean effort. It was also "one and done." In the 20 years since, technology has grown exponentially more central to virtually every part of our nation's success. A permanent National Technology Council would offer President-elect Biden — and all who follow him into the Oval Office — a central and more cohesive coordinating mechanism with the stature to steer the massive ship that is the U.S. government according to a shared vision, common objectives and aggressive but achievable goals.

We have serious issues before our country. Technology innovation and network evolution are central to our path forward: from our health and wellbeing as a society and a democracy to our delivery away from this pandemic, and for sustaining growth, creating jobs and leading on the global stage.

The presidential transition offers a precedential moment. With a clear mandate to close the digital divide and in the aftermath of a massive, state-sponsored act of cyber warfare, President-elect Biden should seize the moment. President Truman famously declared: "The buck stops here." President-elect Biden should act now to definitively answer the question left to linger far too long over the nation's technology policy: "The buck stops where?"

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