Bush Official Serves as Tech Go-To Guy

Mehlman pushing for expanded markets, better math, science education.

Assistant secretary of Commerce Bruce Mehlman is in charge of the Office of Technology Policy in the U.S. Department of Commerce, having been confirmed by Congress in May. Previously, Mehlman was telecommunications policy counsel for Cisco Systems Inc. Prior to that, he served as policy director and general counsel for the House Republican Conference. Mehlman spoke with eWeek Executive Editor Stan Gibson about what the tech czar has in store.

eWeek: What are your goals at the Office of Technology Policy?

Mehlman: Our goals are to partner with industry and the technology community to maximize technologys contribution to U.S. economic growth, innovation and standard of living. To do that, we want to ensure our office is the most important industry portal, thought leader and policy advocate we can be. We are the go-to spot for the tech community, including IT, biotech, space commercialization and more-traditional technologies.

eWeek: How are you meeting those goals?

Mehlman: Were working very closely with the White House and other parts of the administration to make sure that ITs voice is represented in issues like taxation, work force development and privacy. Im also spearheading an effort of the DOC to coordinate its various voices. For example, the Bureau of Export Administration in the DOC needs to hear from the technology administration, which works with the computer industry. Also, we want technology to have a voice when folks are trying to set the next generation of regulations.

eWeek: Is there anything that can be done to ward off speculative bubbles such as the recent dot-com boom and bust?

Mehlman: Theres plenty that can be done. It starts with setting the right fiscal policy. The administrations tax bill is one example. Its important to minimize the burdens of regulation, litigation and taxation. Considering how promising technology is, however, it will probably always lead to speculation. [Federal Reserve] Chairman [Alan] Greenspan talked about "irrational exuberance," although people did not listen.

eWeek: The Unites States has a chronic shortage of technology workers. Where is that on your agenda?

Mehlman: There is worldwide a battle to get the top science and engineering talent. In a knowledge society, the most successful nations will attract and retain the best science and engineering talent. Any manpower effort must address education. The administration is proposing to give universities $1 billion through the National Science Foundation. The goal is to develop better math and science teachers. Its part of the 2002 budget proposal. We are also consulting with the Department of Labor to make sure H1-B visa funds go where the skills and demands are.

eWeek: Would the administration consider advocating changes to H1-B visas so that visa holders could move to different employers and eventually become citizens?

Mehlman: The H1-B program allows us to attract the top talent from around the world, and President Bush has supported previous H1-B legislation. We have to work with people who are concerned about U.S. jobs. The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and Labor Department are looking at the possibilities of flexibility for visa holders to find other employers. But the emphasis has to be on education. We need to produce more math and science engineers.

eWeek: How will the administrations education initiatives help?

Mehlman: The core of the education bill demands some methods of measurement and assessment. This is performance-based management. We have to determine what is working or not working so we can make the changes we need to make. Theres also the Get Tech initiative. The DOC is working with the National Association of Manufacturers, Intel [Corp.] and others. The goal is to bring better information about math and science careers to children, particularly in middle schools. The Web site is www.gettech.org.

eWeek: Is there anything your department can do to get the Net economy moving again?

Mehlman: I would disagree that it is not moving. Global Internet usage is way up. B2B [business-to-business] e-commerce more than doubled last year. Still, we need to make sure we have the long-term fundamentals right. Here, there is nothing more important to tech companies than access to international markets. We want to cut bilateral deals with countries like Brazil. Brazil is not part of the WTO [World Trade Organization], and the EU [European Union] is seeking a trade agreement with them. We need to do that as well. Also, the Export Administration Act includes some changes regarding the export of computers. The computer industry has repeatedly sought relief and hasnt gotten it in recent years.

eWeek: What is the administration doing with regard to privacy on the Net?

Mehlman: In the Commerce Department, we are leading by example. The Commerce Department has a chief privacy officer, who is conducting a privacy review of all our procedures and Web pages. And were working with the industry to see what kind of support they want. However, we have not yet offered or endorsed a legislative approach. But well support law enforcement that is necessary to support consumer confidence in the Internet.