Veteran Washington trade groups seek new blood in Silicon Valley

Old-school Washington trade associations and think tanks are taking their membership pitches straight to Silicon Valley’s doorstep.

Seeking to tap into the success of the sector, veteran influence groups are updating their rosters and opening offices to try and make inroads with the new wave of corporate giants.

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“We’re seeing the elevation of tech as a significant driver of both economic and political events,” said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a lobbyist at Monument Policy Group who represents Microsoft and the tech-based Reform Government Surveillance coalition.

“It’s a natural progression, and you want to capture that community, and it’s not a business community that plays by traditional rules,” she said. “You have to go to them as opposed to waiting for them to come to you.”

The evolution was brought into sharp relief earlier this week when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it was launching a new tech and innovation center with a satellite office in Silicon Valley.

“Technology is not a niche industry in our economy. It is a platform on which our entire economy now rests,” said David Chavern, the leader of the Chamber’s new effort, in a statement sent to The Hill.

“And the Chamber must be a strong, visible leader in telling the story and advocating the interests, challenges, and opportunities of those who create and apply our technologies and those who depend on them.”

Chavern said the new Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, which is still hiring staff and looking for a West Coast office, is likely to expand the Chamber’s focus on issues like immigration, tax reform, trade and infrastructure, which are important to the tech sector.

For many, the announcement from the top business lobby is symptomatic of a broader shift in the economy.

Last month, the Professional Services Council, a trade group of government contractors, started a tech policy group with an executive board stacked with officials from Microsoft, Dell and other top computing companies.

“There’s dynamics in the marketplace that are changing, so whether you’re in tech or not you have to be able to adjust to it,” said Stan Soloway, the group’s president and CEO. “And I think what our role is, as the industry voice and interlocutor with government, is to help both sides adjust to what that change looks like.”

In recent years, the Brookings Institution has also built out its technology center, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank, has helped legacy trade groups like the Business Roundtable get a grasp on some of the changes that come as technology makes up a larger slice of the economic pie.

“A group like the Business Roundtable is now also understanding that it needs to be an organization that shows that it understands technology and how it’s changing the economy,” said Robert Atkinson, the ITIF’s president.

“I think it’s really emblematic of [the fact that] firms are doing this, trade associations, think tanks, as more and more of the economy becomes tech-based,” he said.

Not everyone thinks there is a transformational shift going on, however.

John Graham, the president of the American Society of Association Executives, a trade group for trade groups, said the Chamber’s move is simply an effort to expand and diversify its membership. Other D.C. institutions aren’t likely to follow its path to the San Francisco Bay, he said.

“They’re looking for members and they want to post a peg in the ground out in Silicon Valley to say: ‘We’re here,’ ” he said. “They’re looking for more [members], particularly some of the smaller ones in the startups and the venture capital guys that aren’t out on the East Coast. I think there’s a market out there for them.”

Some speculate that the stalwarts of Beltway influence are weak on tech company membership and trying to rectify it.

“I just think that’s a newer community,” said Herrera-Flanigan, the Monument Policy lobbyist. “They traditionally have not been engaged in D.C., and to help them understand the value of that, you sort of go to them and show the value added.”

The Chamber’s relationship with the tech community appeared to come under strain during the debate over anti-piracy legislation in 2012.

The tech community balked at the effort to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), and ultimately was able to kill the legislation. The Chamber backed SOPA, stoking rumors that some tech companies were considering dropping their membership.

Apple also publicly left the Chamber in 2009 during a fight over the lobby’s stance on climate change.

While there might be some friction, those issues aren’t likely to poison the well, watchers said.

“At any association there are going to be differences of position,” said Atkinson, with the ITIF think tank.

He predicted that, over time, more and more tech and Internet newcomers would hop on board with D.C. insiders.

“Companies like Uber, Airbnb or any of those — Dropbox — they’re going to start getting hammered by regulators in one of these other countries, and eventually they’ll say ‘Well we can’t just assume that the righteousness of our stance is self-evident,’ ” Atkinson said.

 

“I think it’s partly evolutionary or maturity, kind of, as companies go,” he added.