Photographer: Bloomberg

What Will Happen to Obama’s Tech Startups in the Trump Era?

The U.S. Digital Service and 18F were designed to attract the country’s best tech talent and improve government-citizen relations online. Will the agencies survive under Trump?

For much of his second term, Barack Obama has been incubating a presidential side project, courting civic-minded entrepreneurs and engineers from Silicon Valley and elsewhere to lend their talents to the federal government—which, despite spending $86 billion a year on information technology, often can’t deliver seemingly basic services. In 2012, he established the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, which pairs private-sector innovators with public officials in hopes of bringing Silicon Valley’s fast, flexible problem-solving style to Washington. Then, in 2014, after the embarrassing failed launch of healthcare.gov, he created the United States Digital Service, which sends techies to help other government agencies, as well as a skunkworks called 18F.

Not long after Donald Trump’s victory in November, a couple of prominent congressional leaders made a point of publicly supporting these startups. Two days after Election Day, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, a Republican with deep relationships in Silicon Valley, tweeted, “We need to modernize government — programs like @18F and @USDS hold great potential for our country.” Twelve days later, the minority whip, Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland, retweeted McCarthy, adding “I agree. Let’s keep it going.”

This rare moment of bipartisan consensus came amid concern over whether the projects will survive under the incoming administration. Some fear that the new administration will terminate them—Trump’s views on technology in government are essentially unknown, beyond his promiscuous Twitter use and coziness with Peter Thiel. “Computers have complicated lives very greatly,” he recently told reporters in Florida. “The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

The bigger threat to Obama’s tech legacy, however, seems to be that these federal organizations won’t be able to recruit and retain skilled coders and designers, many of whom live in regions that are overwhelmingly Democratic. Four days after the election, Noah Manger, an 18F designer-developer, published an impassioned blog post outlining the dilemma progressive techies face. “When I woke up on Wednesday, my mind immediately went to the people who would soon be targeted by both the hateful policies of the incoming administration and Republican-led Congress and by the acts of hate sweeping the country,” he wrote. “One of the hardest pills to swallow about this election is the thought of losing the federal government’s power as a force for good in the world.” Manger concluded that he would stay with the organization, for now, but others soon picked up the question. Several 18F employees have signed an online petition refusing to create a registry of Muslims or immigrants.

Other agencies have seen similar debates, but recruitment is a particularly thorny question for Obama’s startups because of their unique design. To staff them, he appealed directly to the patriotism of seasoned tech workers, asking them to help the government learn to move fast (without breaking things) and spend less money while better serving its users (aka, the American people). Recruits signed on for terms of six months to two years, after which they would return to the private sector with a sense of how government really works, a network of contacts, and maybe an idea for their own businesses or projects. The staffs of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have each grown to 200 people, who mostly work in partnership with other agencies. Their accomplishments to date include creating a consolidated, mobile-first site for veterans seeking benefits, helping cancer patients find clinical trials, and making federal election data more accessible. They’ve coached agencies on how to buy technology services more efficiently and have created open source designs for federal websites to use. Many of these projects are in beta, leaving them vulnerable to the coming turnover in the White House, too.

Rob Cook

Rob Cook

Photographer: Richard Drew/AP

Navigating the transition will fall to Rob Cook, a former Pixar executive, who on Oct. 31 began a three-year appointment as commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service, a new office in the General Services Administration that oversees 18F and the Innovation Fellows. His challenge will be different than he might have anticipated when he agreed to come out of retirement for the job, attracted by the mission of serving the American people and the chance to work with world-class talent. “They are super dedicated and focused on making a difference in people’s lives,” he says.

Whether that esprit de corps persists will depend, in part, on Cook’s ability to persuade the country’s best programmers—many of whom live in California's Bay Area, Portland, Ore., and other Democratic strongholds—that by joining 18F, they will be working toward ideals they believe in. Jennifer Pahlka, Obama’s former deputy chief technology officer and the executive director of Code for America, an independent nonpartisan organization that seeks to improve government digital services, described the dilemma in a blog post titled “Would you work for Trump?,” asking whether it might mean “a government that’s more efficient at building a registry of Muslim Americans? A government that’s more effective at enforcing mechanisms that suppress voting among minorities?” In another blog post, Dan Tangherlini, who was head of the GSA when 18F launched in 2014, wrote, “I have heard many people say they are planning on leaving.” He added that the scale of the departures could deplete the TTS.

Cook may understand the conundrum: According to the beta campaign-finance website that 18F has been helping the Federal Election Commission build, he donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. But he and others charged with recruiting and retaining tech talent for the government argue that digital services are a different kind of work than, say, writing memos for the Justice Department. “There are not blue bits or red bits,” Cook says, echoing Obama’s famous applause line about blue and red states. “Our real boss is the American people.” There is indeed precedent for bipartisan cooperation on tech issues, as McCarthy and Hoyer’s tweets demonstrated. David Eaves, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government who has advised 18F, cites the example of the United Kingdom, where the Government Digital Service began as a partnership between left-leaning technologists and a Conservative minister. “I don’t think there are many issues that enjoy such bipartisan support,” Pahlka says of improving government services. “Left, right, and center, people care about the outcome: that it’s not too burdensome, that it makes sense, and that it doesn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

 Jennifer Pahlka

Pahlka

Photographer: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Cook sees an opportunity to focus on processes and regulations, such as how agencies develop and procure technology. Where development is concerned, that might entail teaching agencies to get away from the traditional waterfall development approach—in which the requirements of new applications are rigidly defined before they are designed and built—and toward agile processes that involve constant iteration and course correction in response to feedback from users. As for purchasing, he thinks agencies should make greater use of modular contracting, breaking up multiyear commitments into many smaller projects. “I just see the chance for this win-win-win thing between industry and the government and the citizens, who deserve a lot better in terms of what the government can do,” Cook says.

With the inauguration a few weeks away, TTS staff members will soon decide whether they’re convinced enough by Cook’s pitch to complete their tours of duty. Other tech workers will decide whether it’s compelling enough to get them in the door. That’s if they’re even able to: Trump pledged, near the top of his Contract With the American Voter, that in his first hundred days he would implement a hiring freeze on nonessential civilian jobs. Unless the White House signals that technology transformation is a priority, programmers may stick to the private or nonprofit sectors, or to other levels of government. As Eaves says, “If you don’t have the talent, you’re done.” Some startups, after all, don’t outlive their founders.

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