President Donald Trump has created a new White House office dedicated to bringing private sector tech practices to the government.
The new Office of American Innovation has been described internally as a “SWAT team” of consultants—executives recruited from the commercial world—and is headed up by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to a Washington Post report from Sunday.
The White House, which has provided sparse details, will work with chief executives from prominent tech businesses including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, according to the Post.
That new team will make policy recommendations and report directly to Trump on ways to “improve government operations and services, improve the quality of life for Americans now and in the future and spur job creation,” according to a presidential memorandum issued late afternoon Monday. The reports would incorporate “information, ideas and experiences from other parts of government, from the private sector and from other thought leaders and experts outside of the federal government.”
Initial projects may include revamping the Veterans Affairs Department, modernizing federal IT and re-designing government workforce training, according to the Post. The office could also tackle opioid abuse, among other issues.
Right now, it’s unclear what the new group will mean for the federal tech and innovation groups created in the Obama administration, including the White House’s U.S. Digital Service—itself described as a tech troubleshooting SWAT team—and 18F, the digital consultancy housed within the General Services Administration. Those groups also recruit tech talent heavily from the private sector, often for 1- or 2-year stints, and emphasize shaking up Washington’s bureaucracy with concepts from tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston.
Both those groups have worked to modernize federal IT; USDS staff has also been building out Vets.gov, a website intended to consolidate the over 1,000 websites housing veterans benefits. The White House press office did not respond to requests for detail about how the Office of American Innovation, which has reportedly been meeting twice a week, will mesh with those programs.
Kushner has previously expressed support for those groups, and for IT modernization more broadly.
“[C]ontinued dedication to modernizing government tech is a mission critical task and we look forward to working with the many talented, dedicated tech professionals” in offices such as USDS, the Technology Transformation Service that houses 18F, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. chief information officer’s staff, Kushner said in an internal email to 18F staff dated Jan. 9 and obtained by Nextgov.
Rob Cook, a former Pixar executive and head of TTS, said in that email Trump’s transition team had been “completely supportive” of federal tech projects. He noted also Reed Cordish, the Baltimore real-estate developer who serves as Trump's assistant for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, thought federal tech programs were a “crucially important and nonpartisan priority,” Cook wrote.
In January, another Trump tech official tweeted what appeared to be affirmation for USDS, which evolved out of the ad hoc troubleshooting group handling the HealthCare.gov rollout.
“FYI: @USDS is here to stay in the new administration. Period.,” tweeted Gerrit Lansing, then-Trump’s White House chief digital officer. (The following month, Lansing was escorted out of the White House after failing to pass an FBI screening.) Cordish also told 18F and TTS during a town hall meeting in January that "We have your back,” according to another tweet from Lansing.
At first blush, the Office of American Innovation’s mission sounds broader than that of groups such as USDS and 18F, and also appears to be “very closely aligned to the power centers at the White House," David Eagles, director of the Center for Presidential Transition within the Partnership for Public Service, an advocacy group for civil servants, told Nextgov.
Still, he said, "I’d throw up some caution to it ... ideas and good solutions can be easy, but connecting them to a good management plan where execution happens is most important." Eagles noted that business executives may find the federal government faces unique pressures, including fluctuating budgets and bureaucratic pressures.
The Office of American Innovation will also consult with Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to the memorandum. In addition to Kushner, its members include Trump’s chief of staff, the assistant to the president for economic policy, the assistant to the president for domestic policy, the assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and the assistant to the president for strategic communications.