David Cole is a 28 year old software developer who spent 2 years working at the White House as a Deputy Director for New Media. He is now a candidate for Congress in New Jersey 2nd District.
What is fascinating about Mr. Cole’s run for office is the way that he developed his platform. He recently released his political platform on the popular software development site GitHub, so people can say what they think. So what does that say about citizen engagement, and does it say anything about the way the government of the future will run?
Cole sat down for an extended interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program to talk about the platform of the future and why it matters.
“What we wanted to do last week was release our position on all the key issues out there; from the economy to healthcare, to education; how we’re gonna bring jobs back to the district. As we started to do that, and started to do the research to put together these platforms, I was thinking there was no reason not to just make this an open source product. I think too much in politics depends on trying to pretend that conviction comes from having all the answers. Well nobody has all the answers, and I think voters understand that. And one thing that I’ve learned as a software developer is that the best ideas come from collaboration. So, we released our statement, we also put it on GitHub, and we invited anybody to make edits to those, and we’ll have a debate and a discussion about the merits of the edits. But it’s really available for anybody to take a shot at, at improving it for us,” said Cole.
Q. How do you ensure that you’re reaching out to the right people? Say you have people outside our district aren’t, aren’t participating in this process?
A. “I’m happy to have people outside the district participate in the process. The issues are crafted in what I think are the biggest issues in our district, given the the circumstances here and the environment. Unemployment’s very high; we’ve got poor access to healthcare in some parts, it’s rural, a lot of rural areas in the district as well, which need things like high speed internet access, which is something that we talk about. But members of Congress, in addition to representing a district, also vote on issues that affect us all across the country. And so I think people across the country have a vested stake in seeing members of congress being more open and transparent about what they believe in. And while they can’t vote, they can certainly contribute to make the ideas better, or contribute financially to make the campaign more successful,” said Cole.
Q. People are suspicious of government and Congress in particular, so how do you get people to participate in a real way?
A. “Very often when I knock on doors for the campaign, I say, ‘I’m Dave Cole, I’m running for congress,’ and people say ‘why. Why would you do that.’ They ask what I did before, and I say well I was a software engineer. They ask, ‘What’s wrong with just doing that?’ said Cole.
Q. Why would you want to run for Congress?
A. “If you like what you’re getting, then keep voting for the same people. I’m running against an incumbent who’s been in office for 20 years, and term limits are a very popular idea that comes up from this too. People feel like incumbents get in there and then they either lose touch, or there is an instability about them. I try to tell them that I think it’s time for a new generation to step up. As an engineer I come with a different experience and a different background, and frankly a different approach to problem solving which is what you see in the way we’re releasing these statements and the way we’re encouraging collaboration as well,” said Cole.
Q. What do you bring to the table?
A. “One of the things we saw even at the White House with the We the People site, was the site got hijacked by people on sort of oddball topics. People were voting for the creation of the Death Star. And while the White House response was very funny, it’s kind of a distraction from all the real issues that are going on,” said Cole. “These platforms allow we as people who are seeking elected office, or in elected office, to reach our constituents at a much better level, and in a much more human way, which I think is a very important part of the equation that’s missed when you look at the traditional way campaigns are run behind big money and flashy advertisements. With those campaigns you don’t have that human element.”
- Key Insight: “I’m happy to entertain questions on all kinds of issues. If the question isn’t relevant I’m not gonna spend a lot a time researching and providing a, a good answer, I’m just gonna say you know either that’s not something we’re focused on right now, or we don’t think that that’s really in the spirit of where we’re trying to go. It’s quite possible somebody could take an issue that I have on the website and have a completely different political spin on it, and just either delete it to make a point, or completely rewrite it in the negative, and, I’ll thank them for their contribution, but say that’s, that’s not what I believe in. So, if that’s a deal breaker for them, then they’ll look for another candidate. But I think, I’ve had people post on our GitHub page and say look I’m a Republican; I would change pretty much every issue you have up here, but I really appreciate the fact that you’re putting it out there and that you’re having this conversation; so I respect that, and I support you in doing that, just for the sake of the openness,” said Cole.
Q. Let’s talk a little bit about modernizing government. Because, as you mentioned, you were the senior technology advisor in the White House. I know you’re very aware of the a lot of the challenges that government faces as they try and get the job done. You talk about procurement roles, you talk about the paperwork reduction act, but it’s my sense that people feel like government is broken these days. Do you think government’s broken, or are we just not doing this right?
A. “I think the scope of problems that the government has to tackle is so large that it’s hard to make sure that all the smaller details of implementation get done right. But as you pointed out with some of those examples, it’s very important that we do keep an eye on the details and make sure that we are not missing opportunities to provide better services for citizens. The biggest problem with government right now is probably trust. It’s trust that the government is competent in what it’s doing and that it’s really, it really has the best interest of the people it represents at heart. So one of the things I’m very excited about with my experience working in the government for a bit, and in the private sector in a new tech company, is that I think I have a unique angle on how we can break down some of these technological challenges.”
- “You need people who are voting on the legislation that regulates the internet and that builds technology systems, have some understanding of those technologies.”
- “You also need think differently about how you approach a problem. And government procurement as I understand it, was basically designed to for just very expensive and sensitive technology products. For example, a system for the Department of Defense, or a tank or something, or these large HR systems that an entire agency uses to have to have.”
- “Example: When we went to the White House and set up to do website for the President, we didn’t really need to be dealing with sensitive information, or certainly there was no defense component, so we could just try to build a website that was going to be much more like a commercial site. And to do that, there just, there wasn’t a framework for it. And some of the things that I’m pointing out in my platform are, the, what I think are legacy rules or legacy regulations that hold back people from trying new technologies in the government. I think the people who work in the government, generally are doing the best that they can with the tools that they’re provided.”
“What we should do in Congress is provide better tools so that the Executive Branch can get the job done and work to rebuild that trust,” said Cole.
Q. Why is government so risk averse?
A. “There’s definitely a politicization I think of a lot of technology systems. You know Congress used to have this thing called the Office of Technology Assessment, and it was cut fairly recently basically because of a budget claim. I think that I saw last the budget for the last year was about $20 million. And if you look at the cost of the Healthcare.gov website, there’s so many different projections, but I think it probably comes out around $500 million. If you could imagine that one office were able to spot some of the problems or at least to recognize some of the potential pitfalls in implementing this, such as making sure that you have vendors with experience building these kind of systems on a project, you could imagine, that, that office would save its budget annually for 5 to 10 years in, in cost, just on that one system alone. So, you know, we can help people take the right risks, we can help members of Congress and other policymakers have the best information by doing a couple common sense things that are either put in an office here that studies and provides good advice, nonpartisan advice on technology, or allow small businesses to have a way to compete for some of the bigger technology projects that, that tend to go to the same, the same players that you see over and over again.”
- “The Paperwork Reduction Act, this is a piece of legislation that was designed and written before the internet, but has broad based implications on how we collect data even on the internet.”
- “Something like the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau which is doing incredible work in the digital space, and helping protect consumers from all kinds of financial fraud and potential abuse, relies on a lot of data collected from citizens, so that they have the right information about what they’re trying to ameliorate or regulate.”
- “So, taking on these specific pieces of legislation, or trying to move the roles forward, where it make sense, allows these people in government to have the tools again that they need to try to build better systems, and really get back to the number one purpose which is that they’re trying to do their job, and we need to stop putting things in their way from doing them.”
Q. How will you measure whether the sort of open sourcing of a platform is successful?
A. “It’s very low cost to do, you know. GitHub is basically free. We, have a account because there’s a couple private repositories. So, for under $25 a month, we can have a completely open, democratic platform. And we’ve already gotten some suggestions on there, one of which that I’ve accepted, which helps clarify our language on employee nondiscrimination. And that alone is a win right there. It’s worth it. If we’re able to communicate better with people because we’re taking the best knowledge about how to talk about the issues, or, new ideas on solving problems that we might not have, have thought about before; if we’re able to get that back into our platform, then we’re offering a platform that’s far more collaborative, and I think far more intelligent than really anybody else who’s coming out there trying to say that they’ve got the best answers, because of, you know, their internal theme. So, I think it’s already a success just because of the, the attention that it’s gotten, and some of the submissions that we’ve received, we’ve gotten a lot more than we paid for for it, and we’re gonna continue to, to push people to it and wee where it goes,