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Tech-Savvy FCC Managing Director Wraps Up Stint, Heads to USAID

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, June 9 2011

Steve VanRoekel

Today's the last day in the office for Steve VanRoekel, the managing director of the Federal Communications Commission. Appointed by FCC chair Julius Genachowski, during his two year stint VanRoekel worked to upgrade the agency both online -- rebooting the FCC's web presence, for example, and working to get blog comments accepted as official submissions in the context of the commission's regulatory work -- and off.

"When I came in, it was sort of amazing to see the broad set of things that were needing a kick start," says VanRoekel. Morale was low; in rankings of the best places to work in the federal government, "the FCC placed second to last, right next to the Selective Service, and we don't have a draft," he says with a laugh. Not helping matters was that the agency that is by its mission at the front edge of communications in reality lagged far behind. "The Internet connection in the building was at peak capacity at 9:30 a.m.," says VanRoekel. "Lawyers would have to go home to use LexisNexis to do their jobs."

VanRoekel set about improving the agencies most basic functions, aided by an internal digital forum called Reboot that allowed staffers to submit ideas and comments, anonymous should they chose. Healthier snacks went into the vending machines, says VanRoekel. Recycling bins came in. More than that, VanRoekel brought on officials to head up the agency's efforts in the data collection and dissemination space, as well as to work on mapping. He also setting up a "petting zoo" -- a room in the agency's southwest DC headquarters where FCC employees could engage with the tools and technologies they're expected to regulate, like iPads, Droid tables, and 3D televisions.

I asked VanRoekel whether the heavy criticism that the FCC can come in (see Larry Lessig's "It's Time to Demolish the FCC" piece, for example) for was a drag on what he was trying to accomplish. "When you're out on the west coast," says the former Microsoft executive, "you can have the view that government and politicians are one and same. But the mission of the FCC is really kind of a righteous mission." The commission's fundamental calling is to help connect Americans to communications technologies, he says. "And if you take that macro view -- that there's a bunch of underserved and unserved people that we have an opportunity to serve -- then you have a great, rosy outlook about why it's important to work here."

VanRoekel points to trouble getting an enhanced budget through Congress and an entrenched agency culture as obstacles to making changes at the commission.

Next up for VanRoekel, he says, is a short-term stay at USAID. VanRoekel met Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of the foreign aide agency, while helping to stand up the Gates Foundation, he says. The specifics of that post are still being refined -- and VanRoekel is officially with the FCC through June 20th -- but VanRoekel talks about using what he's learned in private and public life to improve citizen engagement around the development work the United States does around the world. "We have lots of aid, lots of U.S. money being engaged around the world," explains VanRoekel. "Are we seizing the great opportunity in the 21st century to get citizens and society engaged in all that?"

And as for that weak Internet at the Federal Communication Commission headquarters? "It's great," says VanRoekel. "You can actually watch a YouTube video. It's faster than my home connection," he says with a laugh, "and I've got a great home connection."