Not content to fail at everything else, President Trump has apparently decided to reform digital services offered by the government, one star in a constellation that he famously understands as “the cyber.” According to Axios, the president — represented in this case by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is apparently not busy enough with the “opioid epidemic” and “Israel-Palestine peace agreement” portions of his portfolio — will establish the American Technology Council to revamp tech offerings. The White House will learn what’s wrong with the government by reportedly hosting a summit with unnamed private-sector tech leaders in June.
The Axios “scoop,” offered by willful propaganda tool Mike Allen, reads more like a press release than an actual plan of action, offering almost no specifics other than the now-well-known assertion that government technology lags behind the private sector. This new initiative will fall under the umbrella of the White House Office of American Innovation, which is run by Trump adviser and big boy Kushner.
That Trump would add technology to the list of things to hate about the federal government is unsurprising, and not even wrong — government technological infrastructure is bad and in need of serious reform — but there is no reason to suspect that this specific program is anything except bluster. The Trump administration is steered by a terrible deal-maker whose policy dictum frequently appears to be, “Well, why don’t they just make the entire government out of the black box?”
For one thing, Silicon Valley almost uniformly detests Trump, and its leading CEOs appeared at a “summit” at Trump Tower in December mostly as a courtesy to the new regime. Nothing substantive came out of that meeting room — just a series of very uncomfortable photos. In January and February, many of the largest tech companies signed on in formal protest of Trump’s immigration ban, in part because their industry is so reliant on foreign workers. (That being said, much of Silicon Valley’s corporate liberalism is concentrated on the consumer tech side; enterprise tech leaders like Oracle’s Safra Catz assisted the Trump transition.)
Even in less contentious times, when the Obama administration openly embraced Silicon Valley’s progress and innovation, the results were almost impossible to transition over to the public sector. There are numerous reasons for this. For one, private tech firms pay a hell of a lot better than the government, making it easier for them to attract top talent. Plus, building digital services for the government goes through the government bidding process that favors who can do it the fastest and cheapest. Simply landing a government contract is an industry in itself. As Clay Johnson told the podcast Reply All, “This regulatory environment is so huge, and requires a real skill to understand, that the people who win the contracts are the people oftentimes who understand those regulations the best, not the people who can understand the technology the best.” It’s part of why the initial Obamacare online-exchange rollout was such a catastrophe, with unresponsive servers and 404 errors abounding.
Silicon Valley utopianism doesn’t scale to a country of 320 million–plus residents tied together by extensive bureaucracy. Last October, President Obama addressed this directly in remarks at Carnegie Mellon. He said:
The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.
So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences — setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio — then I think those suggestions are terrific. (Laughter and applause.) That’s not, by the way, to say that there aren’t huge efficiencies and improvements that have to be made.
But the reason I say this is sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.
The last reason why this Trump initiative will likely never clear the starting line is because it’s overseen by Jared Kushner, and his tech-industry advisers. Kushner’s mismanagement of the New York Observer as it transitioned to a digital publication is notorious, and his only other big tech-related initiative has been creating a scoring system for NYC broadband services called WiredNYC (it is unclear whether this has had any impact on the quality of broadband service New Yorkers receive, but it’s a nice press release). More tangentially, he’s the brother of tech entrepreneur Josh Kushner, whose Thrive Capital invested in Juicero (the $400 Wi-Fi juicer that’s sometimes as effective as squeezing by hand).
That being said, Axios claims, “The council will be run by two of Kushner’s lieutenants, Chris Liddell and Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intra-governmental and technology initiatives. Liddell — the White House director of strategic initiatives, and former CFO of Microsoft and GM — will be the council’s director.” At the very least, those two use computers regularly.
Government technology sucks. Donald Trump will not fix it.