Meet Sam Blakeslee: The Policy Entrepreneur

With no shortage of university public policy programs or nonprofit think tanks churning out commentary, reports and analysis, why does this organization hold any more promise than others out there?
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As a person with a keen interest in politics, I recently read about the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy (IATPP). This non-profit organization, civic-orientated think tank seems to be unique in its purpose: harnessing the power of modern technologies to disrupt the obstacles facing legislators and policy-makers to fundamentally reinvent a civic marketplace of solutions. But with no shortage of university public policy programs or nonprofit think tanks churning out commentary, reports and analysis, why does this organization hold any more promise than others out there?

The answer, I believe, is in their founder.

Any organization is only as good as the vision and execution of its leadership. Blakeslee clearly has unique insight into California's complex challenges and experience crafting public policy solutions. He is a former California State Senator who also served as the Minority Leader of the California State Assembly. But even more unique is his background before holding office.
Blakeslee is a scientist. A geophysist specializing in earthquake prediction, he spent part of his career working as a strategic planner and research scientist for Exxon where he earned a patent for developing innovative research technologies. He later left Exxon to take over the family business as a Securities Broker and Certified Financial Planner, gaining respect in the world of finance before entering upon the stage of politics.

If a scientist becoming a Senator wasn't unusual enough, Blakeslee kept making unexpected moves once elected. A Republican concerned about climate change, he founded E3, the Task Force on Energy, the Environment, and the Economy, and rallied his GOP colleagues to support policies to spur innovation in clean tech before it was popular to do so. He broke with his party to lead the charge for robust technology and science-based policies such as Green Chemistry.

Having been the architect of major bipartisan policy deals, elected by his colleagues as Minorty Leader, and later winning a state Senate seat, it would appear that Blakeslee was well-positioned to become a fixture on the political stage. With a prestigious and highly respected civic position, it would be hard to imagine leaving it all to start a non-profit civic think tank! But in 2012, after 8 years as a legislator, he left elected life to found the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy within the California State University system.

So what does this reveal about a man who has had first-hand and high-level experience both in business and in politics, to create such an organisation? To the political insider, this unconventional move by Blakeslee would appear foolish. However, a more studied review of his background suggests an eddying undercurrent of purpose. It reveals a man who, at his heart is still a scientist, driven by new ideas, technology and progress. Blakeslee has consistently looked to technology to challenge boundaries in his business career and in politics. His latest move in creating the IATPP certainly displays a strong will to bring disruptive reform to an otherwise sedentary process. In all of this we see a man who spent years in politics and clearly understands the greatest obstacles facing legislators, and who has set his mind to overcoming these obstacles.

When asked why he didn't follow the standard political trajectory of running for higher office, Blakeslee responded that "we don't have a shortage of candidates for highter office. We have a shortage of people working on creating high impact solutions to our problems." He describes the need for fresh new ideas that approach old problems in new ways. But he also insists that real change must be a balance of the idealistic and the realistic. He mused that 'most universities and think tanks tend to think in terms of established ideals, not innovative compromise. And most politicians think in terms of short term wins, not lasting reform. We are working to occupy this more interesting space of building actionable solutions.'

The non-profit, non-partisan and cross-disciplinary IATPP, with Blakeslee as its founder and director, are taking a distinctly practical and action-oriented approach. Blakeslee emphasizes that his Institute does not spend time writing reports or publishing whitepapers. Instead, they are creating teams of faculty, students, entrepreneurs, nonprofit reformers, and government leaders to build prototypes and software tools to solve problems.

One example is the Institute's Digital Democracy project, a web-based program to boost political accountability and transparency in the state of California. "California is the 8th largest economy in the world with a $156 billion annual budget," explained Blakeslee. "The state legislature introduces over new 5,000 bills each session, and yet there are no transcripts or minutes produced of any debates or negotations that occur in the hearings. The public has virtually no way to see what is happening in their state house." This project will deliver an online, searchable database of all California Assembly and Senate committees and floor hearings, which will enable a user to perform a "google-like" search of video archives by keyword, topic, speaker or date.

Additionally, users will be able to track special interest donations and gifts to lawmakers, who has hired lobbyists, and how much lobbyists were paid to represent their clients on various issues. The Digital Democracy project will also feature connections to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, making it easy for users to share interesting content.

What they are building may revolutionize political accountability, opening the process to public scrutiny and to other groups such as the media, interest groups, legislators and scholars. By identifying crippling deficiencies in the democratic process, of which the general democratic downtrend in voter turnout is symptomatic, the IATPP is creating a more responsive and open type of democracy accessible to everyone.

Early days as it may well be, we all watch with interest the impact of this project and wait to see the other ways in which this new technology and public policy start up will deliver disruptive solutions. Given Blakeslee's extensive credentials, genuine passion for innovation and problem-solving, and portfolio of power-packed projects (including harnessing California's massive ocean power potential to reduce carbon emissions, and using bilingual blended learning technologies to close the educational achievement gap), we've got reason to be optimistic.

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