• Opinion
  • December 20, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Government needs new translators to help it speak to the tech sector

Opinion: Tech and government have different languages, cultures, priorities and ambitions

This opinion piece was written by Tanya Filer, who leads the Digital State Project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed


I’ve written previously, albeit briefly, about a need for “translators” to guide interactions between technical professionals and policymakers.

So it was great to see Obi Felten of X (Google’s R & D arm focused on technologies with large-scale impact) use that very noun to describe herself last week.

Felten’s official title is the rather more long-winded “Head of Getting Moonshots Ready for Contact with the Real World”, but in a Financial Times feature on Women in 2018, Felten describes how she is: “a translator […] I’m really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand each other.”

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The article, which describes Felten as “chief translator for the ‘moonshooters'”, goes on to suggest that as “politicians and regulators grapple with social networks that leak data, perhaps even damaging democracy, and smartphones are accused of warping our minds and manners, Silicon Valley needs translators more than ever.”

But it’s not just Silicon Valley that needs translators. As I noted earlier this year, governments also require skilled “translators” equipped to navigate between with the different languages, cultures, priorities and ambitions both across the technological and policymaking dimensions of government and between tech firms and the state.

Translation is not a neutral exercise

It is important that governments don’t rely on industry alone to supply the translators for their shared conversations, leaving themselves dependent on industry interpretations (translation is not a neutral exercise).

A revolving doors approach — whereby these skilled decipherers move back and forth between industry and public sector roles — is also undesirable because such cosiness may leave governments susceptible to regulatory capture, or behaviours that are not far off.

Instead, governments need to cultivate their own in-house translational capacities, as well as trusted external translators.

Not every translator needs to be a polymathic genius or a double doctor in engineering and public policy. As a cross-disciplinary Cambridge panel discussed with alumni in Seattle last week, it’s about enough understanding, and what enough means will vary depending on the particular policy domain (Felten, it’s worth noting, studied philosophy and psychology).

These translational needs are one reason why, when we consider our future public sector skill needs, we should be cautious of being too one dimensional, prioritising technological capabilities above all else.

How can governments create the necessary cohorts of skilled translators? Here’s a few initial thoughts:

  • In the UK, the civil service fast stream could open a “translator” track, just as it employs, and trains up, statisticians and social researchers. This would go beyond (and complement) the current technology-focused track.
  • Governments need to map what “enough” policy and technology understanding looks like in different domains, and recruit accordingly. This is no easy task, but it is valuable. The depth of technological insight needed might differ between, say, nanotechnology and FinTech, or between specific emerging technologies being primed for societal applications.
  • Governments should draw on universities, centres of multidisciplinary expertise, to seek out experts who are already equipped to move between technological and policy contexts. At Cambridge, the Bennett Institute, CSaP and Policy Links (focused on manufacturing) are just some of the hubs holding translator capacity.

Universities can also help to build the pipeline of translator talent. MBA degrees were initially designed to equip engineers to become business leaders. While our MPP and PG Cert in Public Policy are, by contrast, designed for candidates from diverse professional and disciplinary backgrounds, technologists and engineers are warmly encouraged to apply to them, spending a year learning in-depth about the policy world.

Universities should also ensure that they are offering students plentiful opportunities for multidisciplinary conversation on topics at the technology-policy intersection.

Candidates for MPP, engineering, philosophy and MBA degrees — potential future policymakers, builders and interpreters of technologies for public sector usage, and investors in GovTech, for example — might discuss how governments use technology, from the business case to the ethics of invention, so that they speak with a shared vocabulary from the outset of their careers.

The need for communicators who can broker the relationship between technological experts and policymakers is not new

The impressive turn-out at events run by CUSPE, the student-led Science and Policy Exchange, shows the thirst at Cambridge for dialogue at this interface.

It is worth remembering that the need for communicators who can broker the relationship between technological experts and policymakers is not new.

Winston Churchill praised his advisor Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) for his ability to “translate” between experts and politicians. He noted the ability of Lindemann to “decipher the signals from the experts on the far horizons” and then to explain to him “in lucid homely terms” the issues at hand. Churchill then sought to ensure, he explained, “by turning on my power-relay that some at least of these terrible and incomprehensible truths emerged in executive decisions.”

Those skills of deciphering complexity and communicating it to decision-makers are just as necessary today, and they are becoming crucial across an ever-greater range of policy areas.

In Mouse or Rat, Umberto Eco’s famous treatise on literary translation, he describes translation as an act of “negotiation”. Translators, Eco explains, “must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.”

Their job is to access the deeper, non-literal meaning of a term or phrase and to make that meaning visible to their intended audience. When translators are unsure of meaning (almost always open to contestation) they can go back to the author to check — or even to deliberate over it with them.

A new generation of translators operating at the frontier of policy and technology will have a powerful role to play not only in communicating complexity, but in shaping how creators — of technologies and of policies — negotiate the ethics of their own inventions. — Tanya Filer

This was first published on the Bennett policy blog.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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