Technology underpins the systems through which the federal government delivers a large swath of services to the broader public.
Citizens filing taxes, veterans receiving health care, Americans collecting Social Security benefits, and prospective immigrants seeking citizenship in the United States all rely on an aging IT infrastructure some in Congress have called a “ticking time bomb.”
A recent study found some agencies spend more than 90 percent of their budgets on these and other legacy IT systems, and today’s rapid pace of technological change only adds to challenges of operating outdated hardware and software.
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As the Obama administration comes to a close, however, these challenges now fall to President-elect Donald Trump.
During his campaign, Trump gave the most airtime to core issues like immigration reform, taxes and the Second Amendment, but an analysis of his speeches by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation offers a look at some of Trump’s positions on tech and what he might push for after inauguration.
ITIF President Rob Atkinson told Nextgov while most of Trump’s tech speak “has lots of implications for the private sector, it’s a bit of a blank slate when it comes to government tech.”
For instance, Trump was critical of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, and he has voiced opposition to H-1B visas, which allow companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers.
While Silicon Valley wants an expansion of the H-1B Visa program, Trump has suggested those companies hire instead from an unemployed pool of Americans. In return, a group of Silicon Valley leaders called Trump a “disaster for innovation.”
As Bloomberg wrote yesterday, Trump’s views could significantly impact private sector companies that hire white-collar techies from other countries to work on U.S. projects. Contractors like Accenture are among the largest H-1B visa applicants, and many of the projects they take on—such as HealthCare.gov—are for the federal government.
Trump has addressed some federal tech issues more directly. On the campaign trail, Trump called the United States “obsolete” in cybersecurity, and later offered a cybersecurity agenda to “crush” cyber adversaries and ensure the U.S. government’s “unquestioned” dominance of the web. According to ITIF’s report, Trump also vowed to “enforce stronger protections against Chinese hackers … and our responses to Chinese theft will be swift, robust and unequivocal.”
While Obama has called for $5 billion in additional cyber funding, Trump hasn’t directly addressed costs. In the absence of direct statements, Atkinson said ITIF looked back at past Republican administrations for clues to how Trump might act.
“I think it’s reasonably likely to see an increase in defense budgets,” Atkinson said. “Some of the need is for cyber, so upgrading military IT systems is also reasonably likely.”
As sister publication Defense One reported yesterday, stocks for defense contractors skyrocketed following Trump’s election triumph, giving more credence to that line of thinking. Trump has previously offered his views on encryption, which FBI Director James Comey said is likely to become a major issue in 2017. Trump sided with a court order calling for Apple to provide the FBI a backdoor into an encrypted iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter. Last February, Trump went as far as calling for a boycott of Apple products until the company unlocked the device despite the fact he himself used an iPhone.
Trump has also said he wanted to restore the Patriot Act, stating he errs “on the side of security” and expects people “are listening to my conversations” when he picks up the telephone.
“On the broader level, he’s going to be more on the side of law enforcement and national security when it comes to cybersecurity questions, encryption and government-access questions,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson added it’s not hard to imagine Trump throwing his weight behind legislation like the now-defunct Burr-Feinstein Encryption Bill, which would have forced tech companies to build in backdoors to encrypted communications channels and devices. Privacy advocates and tech companies alike vehemently oppose such a law, but Atkinson said, “It’s possible you could see [a Trump administration] wanting to do that.”
In speaking about veterans, ITIF said Trump has called for a modernization of the Veterans Affairs Department “by accelerating and expanding investments in state of the art technology to deliver best-in-class care quickly and effectively.” VA infamously made headlines when its paper benefits backlog stacked so high, it risked injuring employees if it toppled over. Atkinson said he believes the crux of Trump’s point about VA is likely to apply across all government.
The Obama administration’s IT agenda, Atkinson said, focused on top-line projects rather than cutting costs, reducing headcount and boosting productivity. Trump’s people might have look at IT as a utility to “radically automate inefficient tasks bureaucratic workers do now.”
In other words, a Trump administration might drop Obama’s innovation in favor of automation.
“In that sense, I think a Republican administration would think about using IT differently than Obama,” Atkinson said. “They might want to use IT to cut costs out of government and to automate things.”
That spotlight on efficiency could impact what happens to 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, two teams filled with techies across the country who work to improve digital service delivery. While Hillary Clinton was clear she’d expand those wings under her presidency, Trump’s team hasn’t mentioned them yet.
Atkinson said Republicans tend to favor traditional defense contractors over those based in places like Silicon Valley. That may change the Defense Department's recent efforts to tap nontraditional tech talent. Both the Defense Digital Service team and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental pull people and ideas from tech hubs outside the Beltway.
“When it comes to government technology, [Trump’s positions] are kind of a mixed bag or unclear picture right now,” Atkinson said.