Tech fellows to embed with Congress

A handful of technologists are slated to embed with members of Congress next year as part of a fellowship at New America's Open Technology Institute. 

In its infancy, the the program will only place about three individuals with technology backgrounds into congressional offices. But the Open Technology Institute said it is the first of "several new projects" in the area.

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Former congressional staffer Travis Moore created the program earlier this year, but the Open Technology Institute announced Thursday that it absorbed the program and would fund it through donations from Reid Hoffman, and investor and cofounder of LinkedIn. 

"Congress is struggling to keep up with technology in part because it doesn’t have a pipeline for tech talent. TechCongress will change that," Moore said in a statement

Moore worked as a top aide to former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who led Democrats on the House Commerce Committee, which deals with the Federal Communications Commission and other tech issues. He has said lawmakers and staffers are many times at the whims of lobbyists and other outside advocates on tech policy because of the lack of technical knowledge in Congress. 

"I think success of this program, or a measure of success of this program, will be offices starting to hire for this role specifically…We're not there yet," Moore said in an interview. "There are a handful of offices and members that really really get it. I think there are a lot that are enthusiastic about it, but we are not at the stage where people are hiring for that."

Moore said he has had about 40 meetings with various offices about the program, and has only come across about three staffers with some sort of computer science or engineering background. Similarly, Moore does not come from a tech background, but said he likes "building connective tissues between industries."

"Some committees are sort of fire-drilling this, and I don't want to name names but one of the committees that has been doing a lot of cyber work has essentially poached a fellow from another office who came from an executive agency, but happens to have a cyber background. But because half of their work is cyber — they've poached him," Moore said. 

The group has compared the initiative to other government-led tech programs at the administration level — like 18F, the US Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship. There are also congressional fellowships for other industries, like healthcare or education, that the project is modeled after. The fellowship starts in January and the application deadline is at the end of the month. The program pays $52,500 over nine months.

It is unclear which members, committees or support agencies will host the fellows. Instead, the program will set up interviews with members and committees once fellows are chosen. 

Tech deficiencies on Capitol Hill extend further than staffers. Statistics gathered by the Congressional Research Service have found that there are few members of Congress with a technical background. Many lawmakers come from the legal and educational professions, as well previous work in public service. 

There are eight engineers in Congress — all but one are in the House. There are also five software company executives and one physicist in Congress.   

— Updated 4:10 p.m.