Crashing Washington: How CleanTech/Silicon Valley Can Have Their Cake And Eat It Too

Editor’s note: Guest writer Maury Litwack is a lobbyist, former Hill staffer, opinion writer and author of the recently published The Capitol Plan – A Comprehensive Washington Advocacy Strategy.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy recently penned an article which laid out the complaints against government intervention in Silicon Valley, while at the same time presenting the challenges faced by the subset of tech leaders who favor subsidies—in CleanTech. This paradox may have left some in the tech community frustrated at the obvious problem but without a clear solution. Is the government’s hand to be slapped away in all situations? The solution isn’t really that difficult—it’s time for Silicon Valley to have its cake and eat it too.

Ordinarily, Silicon Valley as a whole can ignore the government, its players, and its traps because they are an independently-minded group which thrives on willing funders and growing consumer interest. CleanTech is different. CleanTech is large scale, which requires massive dollars, and transformative, which requires public policy. It is a large scale in that if fully realized it would include nearly every type of organization, from small non-profits to massive municipalities and states. To get a feel for just how encompassing this technology is take a look at the many types of members are in the voluntary Chicago Climate Exchange. Their membership numbers are a fraction of what could be in a full-scale exchange and gives some concept of the resources required.

CleanTech is transformative because it requires a fundamentally new way of doing business. A commercial building has to rethink their bottom line, homeowners have to rethink how they pay their monthly bills, and municipalities have to rethink how they provide services. Recycling took a while to implement and that just involved throwing one piece of trash from one bin to another. Imagine the collective efforts of Americans trying to rethink everything from what types of windows to install in a small business to what kind of car to drive. CleanTech is interested in the government because the funding there is massive. Government is interested in the transformative angle because, some argue, only they have the capability to kickstart such a process. If you want to get a feel for how much government cares then venture into Thomas (the official Library of Congress search page) and insert some CleanTech terms. I inserted “energy efficient” and found over 400 individual pieces of legislation introduced this past Congress. CleanTech has a unique relationship with the government whether they like it or not. The question is how to pursue it.

The tech community seemingly has before it two options. Ignore the government and lose out on existing funds or engage with the government and face possible regulation or unwanted intervention. In June, Michael Arrington vented about how the Obama administration hadn’t fulfilled campaign promises important to Silicon Valley and how he didn’t think it was likely for any of these things to occur in this presidency. That seems to follow the non-engagement “get out of Silicon Valley” argument. Alternatively, in the engagement category, there is the recent statement by Google CEO Eric Schmidt to The Atlantic that “the laws are written by lobbyists.” Faced with a choice of “fight” or “flight,” neither scenario at its extreme particularly helps the CleanTech world.

If one were to follow the Arrington method to its extreme, there would likely be numerous foreign companies all too willing to grab the CleanTech mantle by paying lobbyists to push their case before Congress. Foreign investment is moving along very nicely. The Chinese are investing $7.3 billion in smart grids and other technologies, the Japanese are rolling out an energy-smart city, and South Korea is investing $200 billion in a smart grid project. South Korea is working on a free trade deal as we speak, so who knows what such an agreement would mean to CleanTech in our country. The “flight” approach is often taken by those who feel disenfranchised in Washington and decide to pack up their bags and declare “you leave me alone and I will leave you alone.” But in this case, this could be a disastrous approach to advocacy which would leave an entire industry exposed to the whims of others.

However, if one were to follow the other model to the extreme, there would be a needless intrusion into one of our most promising fields. Politicians do love to intervene despite a lack of knowledge. Perhaps these same lobbyists Schmidt speaks of don’t understand Silicon Valley and wouldn’t fight the right battles to prevent government intrusion. Who knows what kind of weird relationships could transpire. One bizarre situation could play out eerily similar to the Canadian government’s privacy czar who recently told a conference of technology groups that the government expected them to shore up their privacy standards. Closer to home, as Lacy articulated, the financial services bill had all kinds of problems which venture capitalists and many other funding sources of the tech world couldn’t stomach. Was that a result of a sour relationship? To fully embrace the government and the potential revenues it represents could be a temporary solution but seems to be a bitter and controlling pill for our most innovative field to have to swallow.

Which lesser of two evils will it be? How can the CleanTech industry have its cake and eat it too?

What Silicon Valley and CleanTech needs are strong advocates in Washington. Engagement with teeth is the right approach. Yes, I am a lobbyist, but hear me out. This is already happening. Politico wrote last week on the number of huge technology firms looking to beef up their lobbying in the next Congress. Twitter, HP, Facebook, you name it and they are there—fighting for net neutrality, privacy, mergers and other issues. Most big names in Silicon Valley are creating an equally big name in Washington and establishing clear markers for what they want and don’t want from the government. Additionally, they are setting up serious in-house lobbying shops who know their products, and coupling them with strategic outside lobbying firms who know how the government works.

Many of you reading this may think Washington lobbying is just a waste of time and money. But making your voice heard in Washington can be valuable and necessary. This approach—a constant, knowledgeable and forceful voice in Washington—is what an industry does to make sure they are getting what they need while at the same time not being taken advantage of. True, if one goes to the government only asking for a handout with lobbyists who don’t get it then the backlash can be lethal, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The American CleanTech industry can use their powerful voices as both constituents and an important engine of economic growth to argue for good policy and needed resources, while also making sure the government stays at arms length in most cases. Because ultimately, if they don’t do it, someone else will.

Photo credit (of White House party crasher): Samantha Appleton/White House Photo