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Kushner Finds Government Open to Change—At Least in Tech

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the opening session of the White House meeting with technology Chief Executive Officers to mark "technology week," Monday, June 19, 2017.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the opening session of the White House meeting with technology Chief Executive Officers to mark "technology week," Monday, June 19, 2017. // Susan Walsh/AP

The chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and other technology giants visited the White House on Monday to advise agency heads on how they might modernize operations internally.

It was the inaugural meeting of President Donald Trump’s American Technology Council, designed so federal agency heads can periodically address specific technology challenges with private-sector business leaders.

In advance of the formal convocation of 18 executives, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, described priorities at the Office of American Innovation, the new White House team Trump established to modernize federal technology with commercial practices. The Veterans Affairs Department’s online services and general federal paperwork burdens are among its top concerns.

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The new office also plans to “foster a new set of startups focused on government tech and be the global leader in the field, making the government more transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs,” he said

Kushner pointed to the federal government’s more than 6,000 data centers, “the vast majority of which can be consolidated and migrated to the cloud,” and the handful of IT systems up to 56 years old, as examples of technology that need to be updated. The Pentagon occasionally still uses floppy disks, and VA’s Vets.gov hosts 532 forms, some of which aren’t accessible from certain web browsers, he added.

“Before I came to Washington, many warned me that the bureaucracy would resist any change that we tried to implement,” Kushner said. “So far, I have found exactly the opposite.”

The Office of American Innovation aims to “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before,” he added.

In remarks, Kushner credited the Trump administration with some early modernization wins. VA Secretary David Shulkin earlier this month announced a plan to use the same electronic health records system as the Defense Department, allowing patients to transport their documents seamlessly between health care facilities. VA plans to sole-source that contract to Cerner Corp.

“This merger would seem obvious," Kushner said. "However, this has been a major issue for veterans, and despite 16 years of failed efforts, the Trump administration got it done in less than five months."

Kushner said the Office of American Innovation worked with the House of Representatives to revise the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which would encourage agencies to use internal funds to upgrade operations. After its unanimous passage in the House, the team is “actively working with the Senate to send it to the president’s desk for signing into law.” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, introduced the MGT Act last session, but it died in the Senate after passing the House.

The Obama administration did push modernization efforts, but many problems had deep roots. For example, agencies closed at least 4,400 data centers due to a 2010 executive order mandating consolidation. The administration struggled with other programs including joining the DOD and VA health systems, instead implementing a system that would let care providers view records in both systems.

The American Technology Council meeting Monday may also address topics including cloud and cybersecurity, Chris Liddell, director of strategic initiatives for the Trump administration, told CNBC.

“You've got 18 CEOs that represent over $3.5 trillion of market value,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, according to a transcript of an off-camera briefing. Citing a recent Office of Management and Budget memorandum that rescinded outdated mandates—including one that required agencies to maintain Y2K readiness plans—Spicer suggested “much of that market value in those companies has come post-Y2K. So we have an ever-changing economy.”

Part of Trump’s intent in inviting those executives to the White House is “to talk about how they can utilize those levels of innovation and entrepreneurship to help our country grow.”

Scheduled attendees included Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, Google Alphabet's Eric Schmidt, and Alex Karp, head of Palantir. Executives from Oracle, Intel, SAP and other major technology companies were also slated to attend.

Trump has frequently invited business leaders to weigh in on federal operations. Before he assumed office, Trump invited several tech titans, including Cook and Bezos, to Trump Tower in December to discuss topics such as cybersecurity and government buying,

But his decision to exit the Paris climate agreement has prompted some tech leaders to publicly resign from his advisory boards, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Walt Disney Corp.’s Robert Iger.

White House officials told reporters last week “no one is going to agree with everyone on every issue,” Recode reported, but that the administration and tech leaders have a “bigger relationship” that can withstand such disagreements.

Other tech leaders have spoken up as to why they’re continuing to work with the administration, including Jennifer Jennifer Pahlka, founder and CEO of Code for America and former deputy chief technology officer under Obama.

While “much of the Trump administration’s agenda and behavior are deeply disturbing,” including backing out of the Paris agreement and efforts to bar people from Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, “the topics the council will address matter,” Pahlka wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece Monday.

Topics they plan to take up, including procurement rules, cloud computing and user-centric design are “so far in the weeds and often so boring to most people that they rarely receive any attention, but that connect directly to the government’s ability to function in service of the American people.”

The council can only succeed “if the discussion of modernizing government puts the fundamental premise of our movement front and center: that government can work for the American people and by the American people—all the people. That’s why I’m going,” she wrote.

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