Six weeks after a group of tech executives traveled to Washington, D.C. for a June meeting with President Donald Trump and his advisers, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and his team are starting to work with companies, including Apple and Google, to get government to more effectively use technology.
According to a report by Recode, Kushner and other top advisers had a private call last week with major tech companies who are members of the American Technology Council, asking for input to modernize government IT. One of the ideas on the table is a system where “leading tech engineers do ‘tours of duty’ advising the U.S. government on some of its digital challenges,” Recode says.
Though details are scarce at this point, that idea is not a new one. The U.S. Digital Service has run a similar program where it recruits “top technologists for term-limited tours of duty with the Federal Government.”
The American Technology Council, which was formed in May, is led by Kushner’s White House Office of American Innovation (WHOAI), a small team focused on bringing “new thinking and real change” to the country’s toughest problems, according to a report by Politico.
So far consensus around the effectiveness of WHOAI is mixed, with critics worried that Kushner’s split focus will mean critical projects – like moving more agencies to the cloud – get left behind. On the other hand, proponents praise his ability to “spot problems, figure out who’s already working on it, and identify-then-provide whatever help they need to do a better job” – an approach that doesn’t cut into federal IT budgets. One of the tangible wins of WHOAI so far is fixing the VA’s electronic health care system.
“Just as well-known tech companies use rapid experimentation to test new approaches, government can too, using existing resources,” a report by Brookings that looked at ways Kushner can modernize government said. “For example, the Department of Education ran quick, virtually cost-free tests to see which email messages worked best in reaching borrowers in default on student loans. Within a few weeks, it had the answers. It used that information to help thousands of individuals shift to more manageable repayment plans.”
“As long as Kushner can keep persuading agency secretaries and CEOs and civil servant to get together and talk, he has a shot at making progress on some of the most intractable issues that have long stymied Washington, from federal agency mainframes to well-maintained roads and bridges,” Politico said.
Arguably one of the biggest technology initiatives at the federal level that has carried over into this administration is the shift to cloud computing. Under former President Barack Obama, the government adopted a Cloud-First Initiative in 2011, where agencies were encouraged to adopt cloud-based services in lieu of expensive on-premise data centers. Along with the initiative, the government has been consolidating its data center footprint as part of its Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI), a move which has a cumulative savings from 2012 to 2017 of $2.2 billion. By 2018, the government hopes these savings to reach $2.7 billion.
Indeed, cost continues to be a primary driver for adopting cloud in the public sector. According to a report by MeriTalk last year, primary motivations for moving to the cloud are cost savings (46 percent), increased flexibility (42 percent) and legacy systems reaching their end of life (35 percent). This last point is particularly interesting as feds continue to spend more than 80 percent of their time and budgets on legacy system life support, according to a separate report by MeriTalk.
According to government IT services provider CSRA, there are five key roadblocks that are preventing federal cloud adoption. These are: concerns around cloud security; organizational culture and maturity; lack of readiness to adopt cloud technologies; perceived lack of control; and immaturity of federal procurement models.
To its credit, the government does acknowledge that roadblocks exist, and is slowly making headway on removing some of them. For example, a lot of the cultural barriers to cloud exist because of a lack of education. In a June report the USDS outlines its efforts in providing digital service training to help the government “become a smarter buyer of technology once it establishes a specialized procurement workforce that understands the digital and IT marketplace, agile software development methodology, cloud hosting, and the ’DevOps’ practice of integrating system operations with application development teams.”
If WHOAI is going to be successful at modernizing government IT, public-private partnerships are just the start. The cultural changes within the government needed to fully embrace technology could be what makes or breaks the momentum of the initiative, and is one that IT pros will be watching play out over the coming months.