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Trump's Tech Team Wants to ‘Wow’ Public

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner // Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The White House Office of American Innovation views the federal government’s reliance on old technology and track record of providing poor customer service to citizens as a bipartisan opportunity to earn back the trust of millions of Americans.

Led by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the office is making use of the White House’s convening power, bringing top private-sector tech chiefs to Washington to share knowledge, best practices and ideas with administration officials.

The goal is an efficient government that serves citizens as satisfactorily as leading online retailers while upgrading its IT systems to keep pace with emerging technologies, according to Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation, policy and initiatives.

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“Each of these [government] institutions and the people that comprise them have in their hands the hopes and dreams of millions of people who count on them for something,” said Lira, speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by Government Executive. “We have the opportunity as the intersection between technology and public policy to wow them and do something transformative: to deliver quality services securely using the latest technology,”

The Trump administration’s Kushner-led cadre of consultants has its worked cut out for it.

More than 10 of the government’s mission-critical IT systems are more than 40 years old. They include the IRS’ tax processing systems, which are nearly 60 years old, as well as IT systems that serve as the backbone for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In addition, the federal government now spends some 75 percent of its tech dollars on old or outdated equipment, leaving fewer resources for emerging technologies, like cloud computing or artificial intelligence.

The White House released a general plan for modernizing government systems in August that it will update and likely re-release after receiving feedback.

That could take months, yet less than one year into the Trump presidency, Lira touted the White House Office of American Innovation’s early achievements, avoiding the kinds of controversy that have plagued other aspects of the president’s agenda thus far. Lira said the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which the White House worked on alongside Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., “cleared its most substantive hurdle” toward becoming law Monday in being included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

That legislation allows agencies to create working capital funds to bank away savings they achieve from modern IT systems.

Unlike the vast bureaucracies that occupy the federal government, the White House Office of American Innovation’s small size allows it agility and nimbleness common in Silicon Valley, Lira said. It’s also allowed the office to agree on common-sense priorities for the government that bypass politics. A former senior adviser for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Lira said Democrats and Republicans alike understand issues like modernizing the government’s technology, improving cybersecurity defenses and serving citizens better.

“There is a bipartisan culture around these issues,” Lira said. “We’re focusing on these problems and have found willing partners on both sides of the Hill. This is a big problem that needs to be tackled.”

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