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Microsoft seeks to give tech firms more say

Center will work to guide policy

Microsoft on Monday opened a new center at its Cambridge research facility aimed at giving the burgeoning Massachusetts technology sector a bigger say in state policymaking.

The Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center New England will serve as a gathering place for technology executives and employees to discuss approaches to political and policy challenges facing their industry, such as a 6.25 percent tax on software services that Massachusetts tried to impose earlier this year.

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Though the “tech tax” saga ended in a victory for businesses, it also exposed an industry out of touch with policymaking. When the levy went into effect in August, many tech professionals said they were unaware that the change to the tax code had even been proposed, despite its inclusion in a high-profile transportation bill.

The new center has been in the works since last spring and is not a direct response to the tech tax episode. But that experience did highlight the need for such a place, said Annmarie Levins, who will head the center at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development site.

“It’s an example of what can happen if you don’t have the right people speaking about things and talking thoroughly,” said Levins, associate general counsel in Microsoft’s newly created Technology & Civic Engagement group. “While there’s a lot of great conversation going on and a lot of great organizations working on tech issues, there hasn’t been enough action.”

Microsoft’s vision for the center is a place where thought leaders from across the Massachusetts technology industry gather, debate, and ultimately present a unified front in important policy debates.

A model of how the center plans to operate will be on display Tuesday morning at its first discussion panel, which is dedicated to computer science education in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Microsoft helped to form the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, a coalition of tech businesses and organizations pushing the Legislature to make computer science instruction available to students in every school system.

Two MassCAN officials will be among the participants in Tuesday’s forum, which is designed to help form concrete policy proposals for expanding computer science education in the Bay State. Concrete measures are key, Levins emphasized; the policy center is an attempt to move beyond abstract goals to concrete steps.

Microsoft also plans to draw on groups such as Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, the Massachusetts Tech Hub Collaborative, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The policy center will have a staff of only four people, Levins said, so outside participation will be its lifeblood.

“What I think we have an opportunity to do with the Innovation & Policy Center is demonstrate thought leadership, bringing together other constituencies to have a conversation, and hopefully come to one voice on issues that matter,” she said.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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