Trump sets up government tech council. So, who's on board from Silicon Valley?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan May 1, 2017
Summary:
President Trump is to chair a technology council aimed at upgrading US government IT. How many tech leaders are going to step up and advise to ensure this heads in the right direction?

trumporder
The Trump administration’s relationship with Silicon Valley took another twist yesterday when the President signed another Executive Order, this one creating a technology taskforce to reform government IT - with Trump himself taking the chair.

The Executive Order states:

It is the policy of the United States to promote the secure, efficient and economical use of information technology to achieve its missions. Americans deserve better digital services from their government. To effectuate this policy, the federal government must transform and modernize its information technology and how it uses and delivers digital services.

The new taskforce will:

coordinate the vision, strategy and direction for the federal government's use of information technology and the delivery of services through information technology.

As well as Trump, other key positions on the new taskforce will be filled by his son-in-law Jared Kusher, Vice President Mike Pence, the Secretaries of Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security, the head of the US Digital Service (USDS) and two as-yet unfilled roles - that of US Chief Technology Officer and Director or the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

What’s unclear at this point is how far Trump will seek to tap into Silicon Valley’s tech knowledge to help shape policy. It seems that there are plans for a summit of around 20 tech leaders next to brief them on the new Council's role and to get them engaged in workshops to help define priorities.

No names have been put into the public domain, but based on previous outreach, the likes of Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and Apple are safe bets to pick up an invite, while Google, Amazon and Salesforce seem likely invitees. That said, to date the only confirmed tech industry presence comes in the shape of Chris Liddell, former Microsoft CFO and currently Trump’s director of strategic initiatives, who will act as director of the Council.

Floppy disks

This isn’t the first initiative to update government IT in the US. President Obama famously complained that the technology on offer to the President paled in comparison to what was seen on TV thriller 24. He was joking, but in reality he wasn’t far wrong.

The US Government Accountablity Office reported last year that in 2015 around $61 billion of $80 billion spent on IT across 26 government agencies went on maintaining ageing legacy systems, including some more than 50 years old. The report cited examples, such as:

The Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation's nuclear forces. In addition, Department of the Treasury uses assembly language code—a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed.

GAO

As well as appointing the first government CIO and signing a (not particularly successful) Cloud First mandate, the Obama administration set up the USDS, as well as oversaw the creation of the 18f digital government agency, both of which had a remit to assist in the digital transformation of federal government. Both were also heavily criticised by leading Trump supporters in the run-up to the election last November. How they will co-exist with the new Council is unclear.

Modernisation of IT in government will clearly involve upgrading tech, so there’s a big sales opportunity ahead for vendors. That said, Trump is likely to demand a lowering of prices from Silicon Valley at the same time as opening up the prospect of new business. That could lead to some tough talking on both sides.

The presence on the Council of the Defense Secretary and Homeland Security suggest that there will be a focus on thorny topics such as encryption and data sharing with intelligence agencies, topics on which the Administration and Silicon Valley are essentially miles apart. The order talks about The order also providing the council with access to classified information on cyber-security threats, vulnerabilities and mitigation procedures.

My take

The challenge for tech leaders here is how to square the circle of participating in an important national debate about the future shape of digital government in the US and not offending their liberal workforces by being seen to be cosying up too closely to the Trump administration or potentially alienating sections of their private sector customers.

The likes of Oracle and IBM have both had public protests from sections of their workforces, while Uber CEO Travis Kalanick pulled out of the first meeting of Trump’s other business advisory board amid employee protests. (Kalanick has confirmed to CNN that he won’t be taking part in the new tech Council either.)

There are also providers whose positions on sexual, racial and religious equality are hugely important to them and who could find themselves compromised by future actions and Executive Orders from the Trump team around, for example, immigration law or LGBT rights.

But given that the new Council is going to influence and shape the direction of government IT investment in the US Federal Government, Silicon Valley’s expert voices need to be heard and heard clearly so that any decisions are taken by the tech-savvy, not by those with limited understanding of the potential - and limitations - of current and future technologies. That can’t be done by shouting from outside the tent.

The planned June meeting is going to be very interesting to observe. We'll be updating the 'guest list' as we hear more.