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In New Hampshire, Voters Send In the Geeks

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, February 2 2011

The New Hampshire state legislature, called the General Court, saw an influx of technologists this year. Photo: Joe Hardenbrook / Flickr

The New Hampshire state legislature is a whole lot geekier this year.

Swept into the New Hampshire statehouse along with other right-leaning candidates, and given a Tea Party mandate to shrink government, increase personal freedoms and lower taxes much like legislators in some other capitols nationwide, are a pack of programmers, developers, and technologists — and their very presence is already changing the way that state works. This week, the state started making nightly uploads of data on bills and legislators, in machine-readable form, on its website. There are bills introduced in New Hampshire's legislature that would change the state's approach to how it handles data an information technology; because of the state's rules, each one will get a reading, and because there are an increasing number of technologists in the ranks of the 400-plus-member legislature's majority Republican Party, they just might fall into favorable hands as they wind through committees.

What's more, these tech-savvy legislators say that a technology approach to government fits nicely with the kind of libertarian-leaning Republicanism that the Tea Party movement swept into office.

"Being an IT guy, I certainly know one thing, and that is that we know how to bug-fix and we know how to version control in a precise way," said George Lambert, a software developer and first-term Republican legislator representing the Hillsborough 27 district. "And it's the same thing as the overall structure of our government: Sometimes you don't need to make sweeping changes, you just need to go in and fix the problems."

There's a group technologists forming in New Hampshire, said Seth Cohn, a first-term Republican legislator who lives in Canterbury and represents the Merrimack 6 district in New Hampshire's House of Representatives.

New Hampshire's Geek Caucus

"I just talked to another rep yesterday who writes Windows networking books, William Panek," Cohn, who is a Drupal developer, told me. "There's actually quite a little tech contingent, we've discovered, within the New Hampshire House. I can think of at least four of us who program professionally. When you add in all the other geeks, there's probably a good five or six of us."

Some of the legislation proposed by these coder-lawmakers is suitably geeky. Cohn recently made an open plea for "patches" to a bill he has co-sponsored that would force the state's administration to adhere to standards for releasing data based on the Eight Principles of Open Government Data, guidelines established in 2007 by a group that O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly and Public.Resource.Org, and all-around open-government-information leader Carl Malamud convened. Cohn has also co-sponsored another bill that would force the state to consider open source software as it makes IT acquisitions.

Other bills, though, simply reflect a programmer's view of the world — that is, that systemic problems are sometimes the result of simple bugs. In Lambert's view, one bug is the executive branch's ability to write rules that impose fees on citizens without the legislature's explicit approval.

Lambert is sponsor of a bill that would limit the ability of the administration to, he says, "make rules that are inconsistent with the laws that we make."

The state Department of Revenue Administration made a rule that took effect in the 2009 tax year to tax interest and dividends from limited liability corporations.

Lambert says he was astonished by the ability of an arm of the executive government to make such a drastic change.

"I asked myself, 'what else could these guys do?'" he said, and likened that type of rule to "the equivalent of a SQL injection into the law."

That's a reference to a type of attack on a web application in which a malicious user takes advantage of an input form — like a place to type in a username, say — to hijack the application and gain access or information that shouldn't be available.

It's unclear what chance these bills have of passing — Cohn says previous open-data and open-source bills have not fared well in the state — but the structure of the New Hampshire legislature undoubtedly helps the odds. In New Hampshire's House, every bill must get a reading in the same term it's introduced. As Cohn put it, there's no hiding bills in the speaker's pocket.

New Hampshire is also a pro-am legislature in that part-time legislators make only $200 every two years, and a legislative staff helps all the legislators research and write bills.

This will be crucial for first-timers like Cohn and Lambert — who met at a candidate training session for prospective Republican candidates last year — as they work to get acquainted with the arcane particulars of politics and policy. It's probably safe to expect that the bills they file will reflect a lot of the libertarianism with which old-school Internet nerds will be very familiar; Lambert, for example, says he strongly identifies with the kind of ethic that came through in the cyberpunk novels if the 1980s, with their emphasis on individual freedoms, liberties and the triumph of the individual over faceless bureaucracies and corporate machinery. In the past, he's been involved with campaigns to curb state spending, and counts himself as a supporter of Republican Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tx.), whose libertarian-leaning fans seem to have joined the Tea Party in numbers.

The Internet's 'Libertarian Streak'

"The Internet has always had a strong libertarian streak," Cohn said. "If you talked to a lot of the guys who are the geeks running the Internet, if you did a Ron Paul poll on the Internet, you're going to be way above the average population."

These newcomers also do not fit the past stereotype of the idealistic young hotshot, perhaps wearing flip-flops, whose social media and web knowledge propelled President Barack Obama. Cohn is 41 and Lambert is 42; both have long careers on the less sexy side of technology, as Cohn does Drupal development for clients and Lambert wrote web integration technology for Borland's C++ and Delphi products.

But if their ideologies are not directly compatible with that of their younger and more liberal counterparts, then — forgive me — they can work together on a common ideological framework: As Lambert points out, it's hard for anyone to argue for more opacity or a less efficient government. Similarly, cost-cutting at the state level can have more to do with efficiencies and less to do with hot-button issues like Social Security or other entitlements — meaning that there could be more room for people on different sides of the political spectrum to come together around pragmatic solutions. Or not.

Technologists on the Inside

Either way, this isn't the first and likely won't be the last time someone has drawn a parallel between writing code and writing laws. Clay Johnson, the software developer, transparency agitator, and Blue State Digital co-founder, made the argument last year that more programmers should run for Congress. In 2008, Sean Tevis' campaign for the Kansas state legislature stood out for the geek-culture-friendly way he ran for office; Tevis, an information architect, ran unsuccessfully again, this time for Congress, in 2010. And this year is the first in the statehouse for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a former executive vice president at the PC manufacturer Gateway, who described himself on the campaign trail as "One Tough Nerd." While New Hampshire legislators are talking open data, Snyder late last month launched a dashboard to give access to data possessed by the state of Michigan.

More and more, technologists are applying their brain power to government from the inside, and not just among legislators — state staff are getting wise, too. In New York in 2008, a team of open-government technologists that techPresident knows well, including then-state Senate CIO Andrew Hoppin and transparency genie Noel Hidalgo, came in to the state capitol in Albany and radically opened its technology infrastructure. Besides shifting the Senate to more open-source solutions, like Drupal, they also opened its data, live-streamed Senate sessions, made data on bills and votes more easily accessible, and even published the Senate's payroll online. They also, it should be noted, orchestrated a transfer of that infrastructure to the Republican Party's choice of staff — so that while the leadership changed, the transparency did not.

These efforts are focused on using technology to bring people in closer contact with, participation in, and oversight of, their government — what might be called we-government initiatives — and they seem to have the same goal regardless of party stripe. Both Hidalgo, who worked for Democrats in New York, and Lambert and Cohn, libertarian-leaning Republicans, say that part of the reason to open government data is because taxpayers are the ones who paid for it.

"I think that what happened in New York with the State Senate open-sourcing is a sign of things to come," Cohn said. But he said New York was the exception to the rule.

"I think the biggest problem, and I'm sure it's going to come up when we start having the hearings [on my bills], is everybody likes to say, 'well, somebody else should do it first. '"

The next hearing on Cohn's open-source bill is Feb. 10.