Looking Back on One Year of Public Policy Consulting

2012 was the year when I first did some serious public policy consulting. I found it quite informative to see how politicians work and what the impact of lobbyists is.

I’m a professor of computer science at a German technical university. I also have an M.B.A. from Stanford. I consult on open source, software development, and the software industry. I’m also a civil servant of the state of Bavaria in Germany. Thus, I try to maintain a policy-neutral stance, consulting on mechanism more than on policy. The German people elect politicians, politicians choose policy, and I help politicians choose and define mechanisms that will turn those policies into reality.

Politicians have a tough job to perform. They need to form an opinion on a vast array of complex topics and sell that opinion effectively to the populace. The people expect them to have an answer for about everything. To educate themselves and form that opinion, politicians turn to expert advice. Those expert advice can come from outsiders, like me, and lobbyists, who are paid by companies for their activities. As a deliberately neutral expert I found my relationship with the anything-but-neutral lobbyists quite interesting.

In the most intimate consulting sessions I had with politicians, I frequently was the only outside expert. Other participants where lobbyists. The juxtaposition couldn’t be clearer: On one side of the table was me, a civil servant and part of the bureaucracy that’s supposed to make Germany run smoothly, and on the other side of the table were people who were paid by companies to provide their advice to politicians. The lobbyists I met had one thing going for them, however: All were card-carrying members of the politician’s party.

I can’t claim that I’d put the label expert on the lobbyists I met. Let me pick two experiences to illustrate this: software patents and open standards.

Software Patents

In one session, a lobbyist was trying to convince the politician that software patents are a good thing. His argument was this:

After the introduction of software patents, companies decided to invest more into research and development. We can see this in the numbers. Thus, patents should be strengthened because they will lead to more research and development.

I nearly choked when I heard this. It may well be true that the introduction of software patents coincided with increased investment into research and development, but this does not make patents the cause of such investments. There are any number of possible reasons why companies choose to up the R&D ante. Software patents may or may not be one of them. In fact, research has shown that patents are, if anything, harmful to innovation in software. So, the lobbyist was basically selling his employer’s position to the politician, regardless of the reality out there. Naturally, I objected the lobbyist’s claim, with so far uncertain outcome.

Open Standards

While I believe I was able to get a voice of reason into the patent discussion at some point, I came too late to the issue of open standards. When the topic surfaced in my consulting activities, the politicians had already settled on some generic language on how software should comply with openly defined standards. Naturally, they had not been very specific on what defines an open standard. Open standards may be everyone’s darling, but from a mechanism perspective they miss the point: Open standards only work if those providing software compliant with the standard actually want to collaborate and comply with the standard. If not, they will always find ways to work around the standard. And if the standard only exists on paper, the result of not being compliant will be finger-pointing and mutual blaming, but no clear results as to who is violating the standard.

The solution to open standards for competitive situations is to have an open source reference implementation. Only agreed-upon running code can ultimately answer the question of how to interpret a particular specification. Unfortunately, when I raised the issue, the pushback by the politicians was immediate: They felt that open standards already was a success and that open source would be asking for too much. This signifies a sad state of affairs of large German and international software companies: They still don’t understand that open source is less of a competitive threat and more of an opportunity. Admittedly more of an opportunity for disruptive innovators than established companies, but still those large companies could beat each other with proper open source strategies.

Here is some earlier writing on how and why open source is good for the German software business (in German).

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