Obama's innovation agenda

Published in Business Spectator, 29 January 2009

Dr Terry Cutler,

Principal, Cutler & Company

Whitehouse.gov, the new US Administration's website, sets out the broad policy agenda of the incoming administration. Prior to Obama's inauguration, this action agenda developed by the team in waiting was on the website change.gov. This site was very aptly named because the agenda is certainly all about change.

This change agenda merits careful attention by anyone interested in public policy, and it will be interesting to monitor how much of is translated into action over the coming months and years. It is a very bold and forward-looking agenda, despite being crafted against the background of the global financial meltdown. In fact it is actively shaping Obama's economic "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan".

Three features of this agenda are especially noteworthy. First, this is an holistic, coherent whole of government framework where actions in one area reinforce aspirations in another.

Second, this is a forward-looking agenda, where the crisis responses to recession are pitched within a longer term view of the need to "build a 21st century economy" and to invest in jobs, skills and industries which can rebuild America's global leadership. There is a strong "we can walk and chew gum" flavour to the whole package. An example is Obama's already announced move to use the regulatory lever of fleet emission standards as one means to drive change - and competitiveness - in the auto industry as well as promoting cleaner energy. The mission to make the US a leader on climate change is thus linked to plans to create millions of "new green jobs" and to "jumpstart job creation". In the context of the worldwide concern about rising unemployment, Obama's agenda goes beyond simply preserving jobs to focus on new and sustainable jobs.

Third, the action agenda constitutes a strong national innovation agenda. Having chaired last year's innovation review in Australia I'd homed in on what whitehouse.gov says about Obama's innovation agenda. Thankfully there are many parallels between the Obama manifesto and last year's "green paper", Venturous Australia.

The section on technology proclaims that "Barack Obama and Joe Biden understand the immense transformative power of technology and innovation" to change the lives of Americans and address "some of the nation's most pressing problems". Innovation is embedded as a central plank of economic policy.

Some of the commitments include:

Consistent with the thrust of Venturous Australia about the desirability of more open access to public sector information and promoting the more open flow of information generally the Whitehouse website reminds everyone that government material, in the US, is not subject to copyright and that third party content is to be provided under an open Creative Commons licence.

Many of these agenda commitments resonate strongly with the arguments advanced in last year's innovation review. But Obama's "white paper" now sets a challenging benchmark for Australia and other countries looking to advance an innovation agenda! It ups the ante in the contest to be an "innovation nation". The agenda also replaces the previous administration's reactive economic agenda with a proactive one. It strikes me as not so much a replay of Roosevelt's New Deal as a domestically oriented version of the post-war Marshall Plan. That, you will recall, was an holistic strategy for the reconstruction of a wrecked Europe. And perhaps that's not a bad reference point for us all today.