#Tech2021 - Ideas for Digital Democracy

November 19, 2020
Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative (GMF Digital)
6 min read


"The breadth and coherence of #Tech2021—honest, expert-led, digestible, and action-oriented—is astounding. It pushes us to stop sleepwalking toward predictable outcomes and offers ideas that will light up conversation in the United States and among its allies and partners." - Chris Schroeder, Co-Founder, Next Billion Ventures

"In today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, technological change over the next 30 years will make the last 30 years look insignificant. […] The next administration must have a comprehensive technology agenda to spur innovation in the United States, leverage innovative technologies within government to better serve citizens, mitigate the challenges posed by technological disruption, and work with allies to ensure our democratic values drive development of these new tools..." - Congressman Will Hurd

Congressman Will Hurd and Chris Schroeder underscore in their forewords that the United States finds itself at a pivot point when it comes to innovation. New technologies will bring enormous new opportunity we must seize to address our existing challenges—and new disruption to which we must respond. Fortunately, good ideas abound for how to ensure these innovations improve lives, increase national security, and strengthen democratic values. #Tech2021 offers strategic, turnkey reforms from experts for how the U.S. government can leverage technology to ensure individuals and society thrive in the midst of rapid change. Despite the diversity of these briefs, some themes emerge:

  • Innovation is fundamentally a bottom-up phenomenon, so opportunity to participate must be broadly distributed.

  • As Schroeder observes, while many may wish for the government to simply “get out of the way,” governments and other institutions working from the top down are needed to spur physical infrastructure (especially broadband access), education and training, and smart rules of the road that unlock the technological potential of our society and economy.

  • Privacy protections and positive corrections to systemic inequities must be built in to ensure democratic values are protected and strengthened.

  • Innovation happens in a global context. Democratic allies should work together to ensure that new technologies support and strengthen democratic values.

The ideas offered up are varied and specific.

Digital identities and resilient data architecture. Estonia’s former president Toomas Ilves urges we learn from the Estonian model to improve the delivery of government services by creating a functional framework for digital governance. He urges two critical policy interventions: creating secure digital identities for individuals and creating resilient data architectures for government. Read the brief »

A national bank for green tech. Reed Hundt proposes closing the gap in funds needed to convert to 100 percent clean energy by financing catalytic investments that drive private capital toward a clean, technology-driven economy that creates new, high-paying jobs. A National Green Bank would focus on directly financing clean-energy projects, supporting state and local green banks, purchasing additional greenhouse-gas reductions, and ensuring a just transition. Read the brief »

A national open computing strategy. Lara Mangravite and John Wilbanks argue the government should provide subsidized cloud computing to lower cost barriers for scientific researchers to analyze large data sets and leverage its negotiating power to protect federal resources and the privacy of citizens whose data are analyzed. Read the brief »

Civic infrastructure for the 21st century. Ellen Goodman lays out an ambitious agenda for a building a 21st century civic information infrastructure through free or cheap broadband, digital distribution mechanisms to push information out to audiences, and protocols and tools to help users access data, verify information, and filter signal from noise. Read the brief »

Resilient tech supply chains. Edward Cardon, Harvey Rishikof, and Thomas Hedberg propose securing our critical technological supply chains by reforming the federal acquisition process. They urge mandating risk analysis and shifting the liability for security, encryption, and resilience to prime government contractors. Read the brief »

Safety locks for predictive analytics. Rashida Richardson offers three ideas for preventing the social harms posed by predictive analytics technologies: A moratorium and impact study on the validity of predictive analytics in government; transparency requirements including annual public disclosures of predictive analytics technologies acquired or used with federal funds; and algorithmic impact assessments of the risks of these technologies. Read the brief »

Watchdog accountability for privacy. Quentin Palfrey addresses our patchwork of privacy governance structures and accountability mechanisms with a three-part proposal: Baseline privacy rules modeled on the Fair Information Privacy Principles; increased accountability through law enforcement and digital privacy watchdogs; and training for developers based on an enforceable code of conduct. Read the brief »

Updated work for a digital economy. Laura Taylor-Kale identifies three steps to bolster worker mobility and remove barriers to a more dynamic workforce: Universal broadband access, universal occupational licensing reciprocity, and greater portability of benefits—such as retirement, unemployment, paid leave, retraining and skill development, and childcare—from job to job. Read the brief »

A grand challenge for cyber risk statistics. Adam Bobrow argues that for cybersecurity to become a fully risk-based discipline, we need a Bureau of Cyber Statistics (as proposed by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission). He suggests a competition to prove the concept, which would include designing a set of metrics to measure cyber risk and developing a model that uses those metrics to accurately predict risk. Read the brief »

A digital trade agreement. Sam duPont suggests combatting the rising tide of digital trade barriers and ensuring a competitive global digital economy through a plurilateral digital trade agreement that combines high-standard rules on digital trade with deepened services commitments across the digital economy. Read the brief »

A national tech strategy cohort. Ian Wallace argues that if the United States is to pursue an industrial strategy it must hire, train, and support civil servants with the needed skill sets to generate and guide these policies. These leaders must understand the economic context for these policies, have a sufficient background in the relevant science and technology, and possess the strategic mindset and skills to leverage that knowledge in developing and implementing successful policy. Read the brief »

Digital financial infrastructure for fair finance. Tilman Ehrbeck and Kabir Kumar tackle the dated financial infrastructure in the United States that costs low-income Americans $2 billion in payday loans and $24 billion in bank overdraft fees each year. They propose reforms to create instant payments, digital identities, and a sound credit-scoring system to empower financial consumers. Read the brief »

Patent system transparency. Lisa Larrimore Ouellette and Heidi Williams propose creating a more favorable framework for innovation—even without resolving broader questions about the costs and benefits of patent protection—through clearer labeling of prophetic examples and increased transparency in patent ownership. Read the brief »

Principles to practice in AI governance: R. David Edelman sees risks if AI systems are deployed in socially significant situations before the technology is ready. Such failures will hurt individuals, harm society, and cause a crisis of confidence in the technology, undermining its potential. To avoid such an outcome, governments must undertake the hard, unglamorous, crucial work of translating ethical principles for AI into policy practice. Read the brief »

New incentives to tackle online disinformation. Karen Kornbluh urges changing platform incentives so that expectations for fairness from the analog world—for campaign finance transparency, consumer protection, civil rights, privacy, competition—are honored in the digital world. For this new system to work, platforms should implement a new circuit-breaker system to give them time to act. And a new PBS of the Internet should be created to support independent journalism. Read the brief »

These ideas can be implemented immediately. Doing so would improve lives, enhance innovation, and support rights. They do not require new federal agencies or a dramatic reorganization, simply a mainstreaming of technology and innovation into the working of government. In the coming months, we look forward to working with the next administration and Congress to do just that.