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Why geeks should take over the political world

Boston's first new mayor in 20 years is a sign of the new political world, where geeks are more important than ever.

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Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

Boston's new mayor Marty Walsh.

On his first day in office, Boston’s new mayor is already under scrutiny, for naming Arianna Huffington's former chief of staff Daniel Arrigg Koh to the same position in his cabinet. It might be worth it, though, considering the long-term impact the appointment could have.

The Boston Globe reports that in appointing a 29-year-old with limited political experience as chief of staff, new mayor Marty Walsh “may have prompted some head scratching in political circles.” The article provides little to quantify the supposed "head scratching," but I suppose it's not a stretch to assume that it's happening in the typically fraternal political world.

What the article does do, however, is explain why Koh was appointed, and why that’s a good thing.

"I think the thing that makes him such a fascinating pick is the diversity of his experiences, from nonprofits to government entities to consulting to media," Michael Schrader, a Harvard Business School acquaintance of Koh and the current chief executive of biotech startup Vaxess Technologies, told the Globe. "He also has deep ties with the entrepreneurial community through his time at [Harvard Business School], so I suspect he will be very active in reaching out and pushing initiatives that benefit that ecosystem."

In his term, Menino prioritized the cultivation of what is now called Boston’s Innovation District, a startup-heavy neighborhood that set the stage for the transformation of the formerly decrepit South Boston Waterfront. Others quoted in the Globe’s article speculated that the Innovation District has come so far that Koh’s contributions may not make a difference there, but that he will instead prove more valuable in uniting the competing tech and startup cultures in Cambridge and Boston.

This is an important plan for several reasons. First is the Boston area's vast college infrastructure, which boasts MIT and Harvard among many others, and the potential economic impact of retaining local grads. This is the city where Mark Zuckerberg was denied early funding for Facebook and drove the world’s biggest social media company to the west coast. It can’t hurt to have someone who understands the tech startup world in the mayor’s office.

Secondly, Boston is just a few months removed from the Tech Tax controversy, stemming from last year’s loosely defined tax on “software services” to increase funding for the state’s transportation department. The tech community publicly denounced the tax as a barrier to innovation in the state, and Governor Deval Patrick called it a “serious blot” on the state’s reputation. The law enforcing the tax was repealed in September, but, again, appointing Koh could be a measure to anticipate these potential issues before they happen.

More broadly, this could (and should) be a sign of things to come. In post-recession politics, job and income numbers are a politician’s lifeblood, and the tech sector is one where jobs will continue to emerge and grow, in both number and impact. Those who know how to incentivize tech companies, how to improve tech education, and, simply put, how to use technology, will become more and more valued in the political world.

Take the Healthcare.gov nightmare as an example. The federal government hired contractors to build a website meant to serve as the platform for a nationwide policy change aimed at serving millions. After the website failed, those contractors testified before a Senate committee that those who hired them failed to subject the website to adequate testing. Julie Bataille, the director of communications for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, even admitted as much:

"Due to a compressed time frame, the system just wasn't tested enough, especially for high volume."

Would this have happened if those who set the time frame for the website were aware of the risks of forgoing testing? More importantly, will a mistake as easily avoided as this happen again? To the public, it looks like the administration was so set on rolling out the Affordable Care Act on a specific date that it overlooked how aiming for that milestone would affect the underlying technology.

It’s not a far cry from the aforementioned Massachusetts Tech Tax – government officials underestimated the impact of the technology world when trying to fix a political problem. Simply put, politics trumped technology. Maybe that should have prompted the head-scratching.

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