By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
WOODSIDE, Calif. -- Here, he's from another planet. Here in Silicon Valley, David Kralik is, let's face it, some strange import. That's why he's attracting such buzz one recent afternoon inside Buck's, the legendary eatery, while lunching on a pulled-pork sandwich.
Jamis MacNiven, Buck's owner, plops himself down and blurts out: "So you're the guy that works for Newt the Snoot!"
Yep, that's Kralik. A lifelong Republican in the land of liberal Democrats. Who relocated from uptight, Brooks Brothers Washington. And works for Newt Gingrich.
Then after giving an abbreviated history of Buck's (Hotmail, Netscape, PayPal, et al., scribbled their first business plans here; Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and Al Gore stop by sometimes), MacNiven goes for the kill: "You seem like a nice person, so take my advice," he tells Kralik. "Lie about your politics, and you'll come to the right -- oops, the left-- thinking in time."
Kralik is silent, smiling so tightly his jaw looks as if it's going to fall off. Speechless is not a state he's usually in. Outside Buck's a few minutes later, he says it wasn't the first time he's heard the slight. Won't be the last. "I just shrug it off," says the 28-year-old. "It's not about Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. I'm here to learn."
Kralik is a probe of sorts, a vanguard of a small but growing Washington consensus that the federal government -- not just its elected officials but also its middle bureaucrats -- can learn from Silicon Valley's ethos. Its creative, entrepreneurial drive. Its consumer-driven, my-product-is-better-than-your-product spirit. Its technological know-how.
Once a House page when Gingrich was speaker, Kralik is now director of Internet strategy for Gingrich's new "tripartisan" nonprofit, American Solutions for Winning the Future. The group aims to move beyond partisanship and tackle issues -- government accountability, education, etc. -- with the help of the Internet.
Kralik is Gingrich's point man in the Valley, arriving nearly five months ago. He describes himself as a bridge between "a world that works: the Valley" and "a world that doesn't: Washington." The political gridlock. The circular bureaucracies. What Kralik fails to mention is that the Valley, too, has its faults, its own shortcomings. It's a bubble. And, just a few years ago, the bubble burst.
But technology is irrepressibly changing politics. The 2008 presidential campaign has buried any doubt. Its impact, Kralik knows, goes beyond whichever party wins the White House and Congress in November. It will continually affect how people interact with their government, Kralik explains, and what they expect from their officials, and when.
"That's why I'm here now," says Kralik, who lived in Washington for 10 years. "This is the new world."
* * *
A cross between political junkie and tech geek, he's the kind of guy who sends an e-mail at 2 a.m. and follows up at 8. Talks so fast he swallows his consonants. And text-messages while driving. A guy who remembers his very first computer ("a Tandy 1000, with a monochrome green screen"). Who lives it up on fantasy role-playing video games.
For him, Ronald Reagan is a political god. As a young Republican growing up in Zionsville, Ind., one of the most conservative towns in the Hoosier State, he believed that the "government that governs least governs best." A graduate of Catholic University, he interned for Grover Norquist at the Americans for Tax Reform, among other conservative groups, before landing a job at the National Association of Manufacturers. He ran the association's Web site, pushing the stodgy 113-year-old organization into blogs, podcasts and online videos. He even earned the association an unlikely distinction when, while vacationing in Australia over the New Year's holiday in 2005, Kralik wrote the first blog post of the new year. "That was vintage Kralik," says Pat Cleary, his boss at the time. "Thinking outside the box."
Though he's not a Washington expert by any means, "it doesn't take a PhD to figure out that the federal government has failed us," he says.
Gingrich calls Kralik a "young, smart, aggressive guy." He plucked Kralik, he says, because "we looked at finding someone who doesn't just study the Web -- it's a whole different culture -- but someone who lives in it.
"I've spent time in the Valley since leaving Congress, and two things have become clearer and clearer. One, the Valley operates in the technology of the 21st century. That's the Web. And two, if we are going to compete with India and China, we need to look a lot more like Palo Alto and less like Detroit. We're due for a transformation."
For years, Washington and the Valley have operated in silos. They didn't get each other. They didn't want to get each other.
Washington is top-down, centralized, "a series of fiefdoms," Kralik says. "Washington operates on the Peter Principle. You get promoted to the highest level of your own incompetence."
Silicon Valley is a bottom-up, "somewhat chaotic," decentralized network that thrives "on meritocracy," he continues. Twenty-somethings with an idea -- say, Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page -- think their way to the top.
But in reality, the two worlds can't operate separately. In response to a spate of lawsuits against tech firms in the mid-1990s, Valley CEOs formed TechNet, a bipartisan network that lobbies in Washington. And by the time the Microsoft antitrust case made headlines in the late '90s, it was clear that the Valley needed to beef up its presence in Washington.
Says Peter Leyden, the former editor of Wired magazine who heads the New Politics Institute, a think tank focusing on technology's impact on Washington: "There's an emerging sense that both worlds need each other. Think of it this way: The scale of the problems that the world faces -- globalization, global warming, global terrorism -- can't be solved without these two hubs cooperating with each other."
Kralik knows all of this full well. On a recent six-hour flight from Washington to the Valley, he drafted a three-column chart. "The world that works." "The world that fails." "Making government from a world that fails to a world that works."
Kralik puts the U.S. Census Bureau in the world-that-fails column. After spending more than $150 million on handheld computers to count everyone in the country, the Census Bureau announced a few weeks ago that it will scrap that program and hire 600,000 temporary workers and go back to the same way that it's counted people since 1790: with paper and pen.
"You've got to be kidding me, right?" says an incredulous Kralik. "Why can't we get together the brightest minds at Google, at Apple, at whatever companies here in the Valley, and figure out a more high-tech way of counting our citizens?"
* * *
In a way, Kralik is going back to school. Silicon Valley is his university. Armed with his laptop, Kralik drives his black Saturn SUV up and down Highway 101, the region's main artery, meeting top employees at some of the Valley's leading high-tech firms.
He runs scenarios in his head, potential solutions for this-or-that problem, which typically end up in a what-if formulation.
Take a recent afternoon meeting at Yelp.com.
Yelp is an online soapbox for anyone who wants to review and rate their local gyms, restaurants and shops -- your local anything. Jeremy Stoppelman came up with the idea for Yelp when he was sick with the flu four years ago. The concept, Kralik thinks, could be applied to government. While Stoppelman talks about the Yelp community that's blossomed in Washington -- "The activity is really picking up there" -- Kralik interrupts, wondering out loud, "What if we could Yelp our government, you know, review and rate how government, how a particular agency or department, is doing its work?"
Another day, another Silicon Valley company. This time, he's on a video conference call with Bobbi Kurshan of Curriki. It's a play on the words "curriculum" and "wiki," and Kralik cultivates the seed of an idea: Can it be used in federal education policy?
Curriki operates under the wiki-fication of knowledge: an open-source site in which teachers and educators can collaborate in building curricula for K-12 students. After listening to Kurshan further describe Curriki's goals -- "We want teachers across the country to share what they're learning" -- Kralik has another brainstorm: "What if the Department of Education adapted Curriki?"
Kurshan, carefully couching her words, replies: "They have other priorities when it comes to technology, and content is not their priority."
Kralik sighs. That's the hurdle.
In the past two years, since the overhaul of Social Security died due to what he calls "that nagging red-and-blue divide," he's considered himself more an independent than a Republican. Then came the "colossal governmental failure" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then the scandal of mistreated veterans at Walter Reed, then the "continuing mismanagement" of the war in Iraq. Kralik says he's had enough.
"This whole red versus blue, Republicans versus Democrats, us-versus-them thing hasn't done us any good or solved any problems," he says, walking down Fourth Street in downtown San Francisco after the conference call. He has to get his car, jump on Highway 101 and drive to another meeting.
"Customers walk away from businesses if they're not happy. But we're not customers. If we're unhappy, where else are we gonna go? Cuba?"
Nothing else to do, Kralik says, but work with the government you've got.
* * *
Surrounded by 30 guests in a spacious San Francisco apartment, Kralik tells a story that refuses to die. Always gets laughs. Nearly two years ago, Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, stunned techies when he referred to the Internet as "a series of tubes."
"Yep, I'm sorry to say it, but that's what we're up against in Washington," Kralik says to his audience, a group of Republican and Libertarian high-tech entrepreneurs called Lead21.Then, as he does sometimes, he pumps his fist, raises his voice and gets excited by a project that, for him, requires immediate attention.
He's frustrated that there isn't one site that lists the country's estimated 513,000 elected officials -- not just Washington officials but local city council members, school commissioners, judges, etc. So he's helped create what he calls 513Connect, "the Wikipedia for all elected officials." On the site, not yet available to the public, users edit a list of elected officials across the country. Type in your Zip code. Find your community. Enter the name of your local officials.
It's an interesting idea, for sure, but not earth-shattering. These days, all it takes is a click of a mouse to figure out who certain local officials are. That's the big picture. The forest. But Kralik, the geek in search of solutions as he drives up and down Highway 101, is still studying the trees.