LAS VEGAS ­— A technologically challenged Congress has numerous limitations hampering its ability to modernize the federal government’s approach to cybersecurity and IT modernization, according to two former congressional innovation fellows speaking at BSides Las Vegas, an information security security held August 6-7.

Maurice Turner — a former participant in a program that places technology professionals in congressional offices to serve as temporary technology advisers, and now a senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology — said that a significant challenge on technology issues in Congress is that conversation can quickly shift elsewhere.

“Priorities can change,” Turner said, pointing to his experience working in Congress when the health care debate took over earlier in the Trump presidency, shifting focus away from some of the tech issues he was working on.

And with so many members working on similar issues, another challenge facing Congress was coordinating the work.

It’s “really hard to figure out who was working on what,” said Katherine Pratt, a former congressional innovation fellow.

Hiring staffers fluent in technology issues also slows Congress down, Turner said. He pointed to the fact that there are the loads of health care and tax policy staffers on Capitol Hill, but there is a significant dearth of staffers well-versed in security measures such as encryption.

Beyond that, members also have limited resources to hire on additional staff. Pratt specifically said that members’ office budgets influence hiring decisions and even pointed to the limited physical office space members have on the House side as a factor to adding new staff.

There’s also a shortage of members of Congress who have technology backgrounds. Just four members of Congress reportedly have computer science degrees.

“There need to be more members who have technical backgrounds coming in to represent their constituents,” Turner told Federal Times. “It’s an important side of the lives of their constituents that aren’t represented as they should be.”

Not helping the matter is the recent announcement that Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, one of the leading cybersecurity voices on Capitol Hill, is leaving at the end of his term. Hurd has been a champion for the cyber workforce and IT modernization in the federal government.

“It’s a shame,” Turner said. “It seems like he had a certain level of frustration with his abilities to actually get more done in the way of IT modernization and advocating for better cybersecurity. It’s definitely a loss for his district, but also for the country.”

The implications of Hurd’s retirement include the reality that that there is one less tech-savvy politician left on an already barren Capitol Hill. It’s important for people with technical backgrounds to see members with similar experience in Congress, Turner said.

“It’s encouraging when there are members who have technical backgrounds, because it encourages more members with technical backgrounds to come into Congress,” Turner said. “It’s a shame that we have a case where the political side of Congress seems to have taken its toll on the members who are trying to get more practical work done.”

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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