Over the last couple of weeks, the White House has been trying to master the art of the tiny. First came Infrastructure Week, then it was Workforce Development Week and yesterday they launched Technology Week. The irony is that Jared Kushner is behind most of it via his Office of American Innovation and he seems to be busy cribbing Obama’s ideas.
Last week I noted that for workforce development, the White House is focusing almost exclusively on apprenticeships, something that was a big push from Obama’s Labor Department via Secretary Tom Perez. It’s also true that many of the infrastructure projects being highlighted by Kushner—like high speed rail and broadband access—were major priorities for the Obama administration.
For Technology week, here’s what they announced yesterday:
President Donald Trump met on Monday with the heads of 18 U.S. technology companies including Apple Inc , Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp , seeking their help to make the government’s computing systems more efficient.
The White House wants to update government information technology systems, cut costs, eliminate waste and improve service. Trump on Monday cited estimates that the government could save up to $1 trillion over 10 years through such measures…
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, said the administration wanted to “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before.”
That’s all well and good…except for the part about providing “citizen services in a way that has never happened before.” Color me surprised (not) that Kushner didn’t mention that it was the Obama administration that created the U.S. Digital Service, whose mission is “to deliver better government services to the American people through technology and design.”
We know that Kushner is aware of this service because just prior to the inauguration in January he sent this email to Todd Park, Obama’s chief technology officer:
Todd, Thank you to the leadership of the US CIO, USDS, TTS, and OSTP for the detailed presentation of their initiatives. I have heard only great things about you and the program you have built. The continued dedication to modernizing Government Tech is a mission critical task and we look forward to working with the many talented, dedicated tech professionals in these offices.
According to Michael Coren and Keith Collins, the future of these services is in doubt because of the federal hiring freeze and the problem many of the staff might have with helping to implement Trump’s agenda. This is also cause for concern.
It is still possible that the Trump administration will reverse its current promise to keep the USDS. Before the inauguration and the public endorsements from Kushner, Lansing, and Cordish, an anonymous source with knowledge of the transition told Federal News Radio that the new administration was considering reducing the size of the USDS from 200 to a few dozen.
While the reasons behind this initiative and its scope have not been made clear before, in the president’s view, the idea of building a “pipeline” of tech talent in Washington starts with practical appeal: Better digital tools could upgrade the websites of, say, the Veterans Administration, so users get crucial services that save time, money, and (for veterans in need of medical help) lives. “But what we realized was, this could be a recipe for something larger,” the president explains. “You will have a more user-friendly government, a more responsive government. A government that can work with individuals on individual problems in a more tailored way, because the technology facilitates that the same way it increasingly does for private-sector companies.”
But there was an added bonus to the way they set this up.
In the meantime, do you also end up with a dedicated group of Rogue Leader Weavers where none existed before? Tech geniuses who embrace public service as an essential element of their careers? The president is betting on that outcome as well.
The Obama White House went on a major recruiting initiative to hire some of the brightest young minds in the tech world to work for the government. In addition to transforming critical services; rethinking how the government buys digital services; and expanding the use of common platforms, services, and tools, a part of their mission was to bring top technical talent into public service.
In support of these goals, we recruit top technologists for term-limited tours of duty with the Federal government. We hope to encourage a tradition of public service in the technology industry that will support the ongoing improvement of government digital services.
Mickey Dickerson, who originally took a break from his job at Google to help fix the Obamacare web site and stayed on to be the administrator for U.S. Digital Services, put it this way:
The most sobering thing about my time in government is to really understand on an emotional level that this country belongs to you and me and it is exactly as good as we make it. Grownups are not going to fix it for us and billionaires are not going to fix it for us. We either do it ourselves, or nobody does.
Notice that for Trump this is a cost-saving initiative while, for Obama, it was all about making the government more responsive to the needs of citizens. Good government vs inexpensive government is a classic liberal/conservative divide. The latter is not a problem unless the former is sacrificed to attain it.
So this week Trump and Kushner met with the billionaires (or perhaps millionaires) who are CEOs of 18 technology companies to enlist them in updating the way the government provides citizen services. That’s not likely to come cheap. In other words, Kushner copied Obama’s goal, but obviously thinks he can implement it from the top down, which makes it a very old-fashioned approach that is the opposite of innovative and probably a lot more expensive.