Congress

Khanna looks to spruce up online government services

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) represents a district in the San Francisco Bay Area that includes the campuses of Apple, Intel, Yahoo and eBay. After serving as deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce in the Obama Administration, Khanna won election to Congress in 2016 on his second bid for public office.

Earlier this year, Khanna introduced the bipartisan 21st Century IDEA Act, which would make government websites more user friendly and operations more digital. Khanna was also tasked by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to come up with overarching principles to protect Americans' data online. The result, completed earlier this month, was the ambitious Internet Bill of Rights: a 10-item proposal aimed at expanding consumers' control over their personal data.

FCW's Chase Gunter spoke with Khanna about these efforts, plus how to better improve Congress's tech knowledge base.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FCW: You've introduced a bill that would improve citizen-facing services for government websites, among other things. What are other areas you see for low-cost solutions for improving government services, or modernizing tech?

Khanna: The IDEA Act will go a long way. It would require websites to have e-signatures, it would require websites to be user-friendly with people using mobile phones, it would require everyone to have the option of having digital interactions. And you would have the CIOs responsible for surveys of customer experience and making sure that the user experience was a good one, and you would also have independent agencies like the information technology organization assessing these websites and making sure that people have a good experience.

It's really codifying [Office of Management and Budget] directives, and I am very optimistic it will have a major impact if it becomes law.

Other places, of course, are in on the design of these websites. I feel having people come from Silicon Valley who understand how much design influences user experience can be helpful.… So having people with that set of skills in government will help, and that means expanding the digital corps which President Obama created, and to this White House's credit, they have expanded. They have strengthened, they've expanded. [OMB Director] Mick Mulvaney has been a great advocate for it, as has [Special Assistant to the President for Innovation Policy] Matt Lira, and I give them credit for that.

FCW: What do you think of the White House's stance towards tech, whether it's the digital innovation teams or anything else you're seeing?

Khanna: Of course there are a lot of places I disagree with the administration, but I think Matt Lira is a star.... I give him an extraordinary amount of credit in his work in continuing the work of the administration and looking for ways to make the government more innovative. I'd say the same about Chris Liddell. And Mick Mulvaney and I have very different views on the budget, but Mulvaney been very supportive of the digital corps and making government more innovative and tech-friendly. So my experience interacting with the Office of American Innovation has been a positive one on that dimension.

FCW: In your time on the Hill, tech has been a focus of yours. With Congress's reputation for not exactly being the most technologically savvy, how do you think the legislative branch should go about improving that knowledge base?

Khanna: We need an office of technology in Congress similar to the [Congressional Budget Office], which can advise Congress on tech issues. The White House has the Office of Science and Technology [Policy], and I think Congress would benefit from an independent agency staffed by technologists that can help advise Congress on these very complex issues.

FCW: What's the reception been to the Internet Bill of Rights? Has there been pushback on any of the principles?

Khanna: I think it's been positive. I think most people say, "Okay, the devil is in the details, and let's figure out whether this is going to be one large bill or whether this is going to be piecemeal legislation." And of course the jurisdiction is with the Energy and Commerce Committee. But I'm open to people in that committee process really adding their perspective and doing the hard work of filling out the details. What I wanted to do was get the conversation started and spur Congress into action and make sure this is in the top priorities for the United States Congress.

FCW: Would you want to see some of the other congressional priorities on data privacy or social media regulation combined with the Internet Bill of Rights? How would you like to see it introduced?

Khanna: My sense is that I don't think it'll be one large piece of legislation, I think it'll be many smaller pieces of legislation, and there are some thoughtful people on Energy and Commerce -- like Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) -- who will introduce various pieces of legislation to do that.

You may have a law that requires consent before collection of data. You may have a law that requires people to have access to their data. You may have a law that requires notification in the case of a breach.

My sense is it's hard to pass big pieces of legislation in Congress, and sometimes it's easier to pass legislation in a piecemeal fashion. My interest is in helping bring rigorous thinking on technology issues to the Congress and helping Congress reach out to the appropriate experts. But I want to be deferential to the committees of jurisdiction on how they best think that legislation should proceed.

FCW: What time frame do you see for introduction of legislation?

Khanna: I'm going to be pushing for the first 100 days [of the next Congress]. But ultimately the decision would be with Frank Pallone, who would be the chair of Energy and Commerce if [Democrats] take back the House.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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