It’s hard to remember how technologically backward the White House was when President Obama entered office.
These days, Obama posts selfies on Instagram and wishes Joe Biden happy birthday from his official Twitter account. He introduced hackathons to crowdsource solutions for improving cities, foster care, and the education system. He hosted a Demo Day that, in the startup spirit, invited innovators to “demo” their successes and spur other Americans to pursue game-changing ideas.
But when Obama’s transition team arrived at the White House in late 2008, it was clear that they were entering an institution where tech innovation was not a priority. Dan McSwain remembers this well. He had been part of Obama’s campaign, where his job was to send emails to 13 million supporters. When he showed up for his first day of work as the White House’s email writer/producer, he tried to download Firefox on his office computer. He was promptly told by a government employee to cut it out: the only lawyer-approved browser was Internet Explorer. “We had been used to publishing video, streaming live events online, maintaining comments sections, posting to Twitter,” McSwain says. “We couldn’t do any of those things because none of them had government-ready privacy standards.”
Over the last eight years, Obama has upended the way the executive branch of government interacts with technology. When President-elect Donald Trump moves into the White House in January, he’ll find the place buzzing with tech talent. As part of his legacy, Obama will be leaving Trump with an in-house startup called the United States Digital Service that pairs the nation’s top tech talent with public servants, and a consulting firm called 18F that government agencies can hire to build websites, manage data, or do user research.
But as McSwain’s experience demonstrates, it took a lot of effort to bring the government to this level of ease with technology. All of Obama’s hard work is now Trump’s to preserve and push forward—or squander.
To see how we got to the White House’s current state of tech savviness, it’s worth looking back at Obama’s relationship with technology from his earliest days as a presidential candidate.
In his first bid for the White House, Obama ran the most technologically advanced campaign the country had ever seen. He fashioned his team much like a startup, complete with a chief technology officer, Michael Slaby, who was tasked with finding new ways to speak to voters. This meant tapping into social media tools that had just been invented. “We were trying to involve more new people in politics,” recalls Slalby, now head of mission at the tech agency Timshel. “We weren’t building a lot of technology because we didn’t have time, but we were opportunistic consumers of new platforms. We tried Facebook, we tried MySpace, we tried other social networks that don’t even exist anymore.”
When Obama won, Slaby and many of his colleagues, including McSwain, became part of the digital transition team. McSwain remembers that a big part of his job in those early days was recruiting lawyers from the presidential transition team to work with social media and internet companies to write new terms of service that were amenable to the government’s data and privacy requirements. But first they had to make their way through red tape. “We should have understood more clearly that this was a harbinger of what was to come,” he says. “But we were just so excited. We were 25-year-old kids and just helped elect the first African-American president. No one could tell us there was something we couldn’t do.”
Over the next few months, things changed. Lawyers vetted each new tech tool, from McSwain’s Firefox browser to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and iTunes. There were passionate discussions about overhauling the White House website, to make it easier for citizens to engage with the President and learn about his initiatives. When Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, he created a massive digital health care exchange, a task that was ambitious even by Silicon Valley standards. (Although the first version of the website, launched in 2013, was riddled with problems, most of them were fixed by the end of open enrollment 2014, when more than 15 million previously uninsured Americans signed up for coverage.) His team built We The People, a digital platform that allows citizens to petition the White House, which has garnered more than 470,000 petitions, some of which have shaped policy on issues such as cell phone unlocking and net neutrality.
To make this happen, there had to be an infusion of tech talent. And Obama’s team knew exactly where to find it: Silicon Valley.
Following Obama’s victory, Katie Stanton, a Google executive who had volunteered for the campaign, received a call from the presidential transition team. They asked her to become the director of Citizen Participation, which would create channels for people to communicate directly with the White House.
Stanton brought her knowledge of technology and her ability to tackle these challenges nimbly; but she also brought her digital rolodex of contacts. When the team needed an expert, she could scroll through her phone to find someone with strong internet security credentials or someone who understood how to create open data platforms. Before the White House launched its Facebook account, she called a contact at the social media network to discuss the best practices to keep the account secure and reach the largest audience.
In some cases, the digital teams got advice from their friends in the Valley for free. In others, they would bring on advisors as official contractors or full fledged-employees for a short period of time. This was very different from previous administrations that relied on hiring big, expensive government contractors like Lockheed Martin for their technology infrastructure. “I understand why they are there, but it often wasn’t the best outcome for the government because it just cost too much,” Stanton says. “We were able to tap into innovators in the tech industry to ask them about better, less expensive ways to solve a problem.”
Dozens of people like Stanton descended upon the White House during the early days of Obama’s first term, though it was challenging to convince some of them to leave plush jobs in Silicon Valley to move to Washington. Stanton had always dreamed of pursuing public service of some kind, but even for her, it was a difficult choice because she had three young children who were happily settled in California. “It was a financially reckless decision,” she says. “I was forced to sell all my Google stock. My salary got cut to a fifth of what it was.”
Over the last few years, the administration has been refining its pitch to Silicon Valley talent. When he was White House CTO, Todd Park came up with the idea to create the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which invites techies to serve a “tour of duty”—i.e., a post for a limited amount of time, from a few months to a few years—and then return to their previous jobs. To maximize the efficiency of these short-term hires, the U.S. Digital Service connects techies with public servants to solve specific problems that can be solved in a more compact timeframe. Megan Smith, the current CTO, is continuing to develop this program. “When I went, it was ridiculously hard, because I had to just quit my job,” Stanton says. “There are now guidelines so you don’t have to lose your equity in your company.”
Park has since left Washington for the Bay Area, where he recruits full-time for the White House. The large number of tech workers who have already spent time in the White House makes his work easier. “The government is definitely not a black box anymore,” Park says. “People understand the decision to come serve. They understand how it works.”
All of this set the stage for the current White House tech revolving door, through which top Silicon Valley talent enters the government on a temp basis, then returns to their native habitat. Stanton went back to Northern California after two years in D.C. She was proud of what she’d accomplished, including setting up a texting service that allowed American citizens to raise $33 million in a single week for the victims of the devastating hurricane in Haiti. She went on to run Twitter’s international operations and now serves as the CMO of Color Genomics.
The influx of tech talent in the government means that more people are coming into contact with sensitive information, including troves of data about the American population. In fact, the government is now managing and deploying so much data that the White House created a new position last year: chief data scientist. D.J. Patil, who has held data and security positions at LinkedIn, Greylock Partners, Skype, PayPal, and eBay, was hired to fill the role. (Prior to entering the private sector, Patil served in the Department of Defense, developing systems to detect emerging digital threats to the U.S. post-9/11.)
The White House is now tackling more ambitious data projects than ever before. Take the Precision Medicine Initiative that was launched a year ago. The plan is to collect large quantities of data about American citizens to adjust medical treatments to an individual’s unique makeup: their genome sequence, microbiome, health history, and lifestyle. Tailored treatment has already been shown to improve the outcomes of cancer and mental health treatment, among many other diseases.
But success depends on health care providers and patients sharing data—and sharing it in a format that can be easily transferred between parties. “Right now, you get your genome sequenced but you don’t see it when you go to the pharmacist,” Patil says. “How do we move the whole entire health care system into the genomic era? And how do we get the whole country there, rather than just small pockets?”
The government has already begun laying out some of the security principles that will have to be enforced so that this data doesn’t get leaked and end up harming citizens in unforeseen ways, like influencing how insurers or employers treat people. To complicate matters even further, the White House is now working within an open data framework which seeks to make aggregated, anonymized data accessible to companies and individuals who want to use it for research or to develop new products. “Our mission is to responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans,” Patil says. “Our goal is to make all these files open and machine readable because people want to use this data, whether it’s weather data or health data.”
Patil points out that these are data security issues that tech behemoths have been tackling for years. Google, Facebook, and Amazon already have stores of information about millions of users, while banks and health care companies have digitized user files. These organizations are at the forefront of data security, focused on encryption, anonymizing data, and creating tiers of security clearance.
Hiring tech experts familiar with these processes is advantageous: They bring the institutional knowledge with them and collaborate with various government agencies, such as the IRS or the Department of Education, to educate those agencies about the latest technologies and help them to keep the data secure. “They never have the data just sitting on a hard disk that somebody can just walk away with,” Patil says. “If you work for—pick your favorite social media company—when you leave, you don’t ever take the data with you, and you also turn in all of your equipment and credentials. That’s just good data hygiene.”
There’s no doubt that bringing in an army of tech workers has allowed the White House to act more effectively in the digital era. But there are drawbacks too.
One issue is that the increased presence of techies in the government would seem to advance the Valley’s ideology that technology is an inherently positive, democratizing force in society. Yet earlier this year, the World Bank determined that technology companies are exacerbating economic inequality, not improving it. The digital revolution has made technically skilled people more valuable to the workforce, while those without the requisite skill set have been shut out. This exclusion contributed to the anger and dissatisfaction that the working class expressed during the election. And while sharing-economy companies like Uber, Postmates, and TaskRabbit have created new jobs requiring various levels of expertise, workers are often on unstable footing as freelancers without the benefits of insurance.
But as Patil points out, the government does not function like a corporation, nor should it. While companies narrow in on one segment of consumers, the government must serve all citizens. And to that end, technology should be a positive force for everyone. “In the startup, the classic thing that we do is to focus on one market or one population that will be the edge cases,” he says. “But those edge cases have names, those edge cases are human. And when we ignore them because they don’t make sense in the market, those are real lives that matter. We can’t say, ‘Sorry, we don’t care about people who don’t have connectivity or access to widgets.’ We have to make sure it serves everyone, otherwise you don’t build for the 100%.”
Problems also arise when individual tech firms get too close to the White House. It is no secret that Google is the most popular tech landing spot for former White House officials. Records show that nearly 250 people have moved from the government to Google over the course of the Obama administration.
This has raised concerns that Google could be in a position to receive special favors from the White House. The Wall Street Journal studied White House visitor logs and determined that Google met with high-ranking administration officials an average of once a week, which was significantly higher than other companies. (Google’s lobbyist had three times more meetings at the White House than Comcast’s, for instance.) Google employees were the second-largest source of donations for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and hundreds of workers moved from Google to the White House or vice versa over the past eight years.
The Journal suggested that this intimacy has worked to Google’s advantage. In 2013, the FTC announced it was investigating whether the company was using anticompetitive tactics and abusing its monopoly in the marketplace. But Google managed to avoid a potentially damaging antitrust lawsuit because presidentially appointed FTC commissioners voted to end the probe. These days, Google’s relationship with Washington is being closely watched by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, which will track future interactions between the two bodies.
Slaby believes that this kind of scrutiny is good and is facilitated by the fact that the White House makes all visitor logs public. “The lines around incentives can get blurry for people who are going back and forth, so positive revolving door rules around former elected officials lobbying their colleagues or political appointees lobbying their former teams are really important,” he says. “We are losing a culture of public service by allowing public servants to optimize around future profit when they leave.”
When Trump assumes office in January, he will have an army of tech talent at his disposal. Many jobs at 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have been written into the budget for the next few years and will remain, unless there is a special effort to eliminate them. It is possible that some tech employees will leave because they don’t agree with Trump’s policies. But others will likely choose to serve in the government because they feel a responsibility to the American people. “The most patriotic thing you can do is show up,” Slaby says.
It is unclear what Trump plans to do with the tech infrastructure that Obama built. The White House laid out a plan for the digital transition, explaining how it will archive information and hand off social media handles to the next administration. However, Trump has said that he is in favor of a downsized government, so some tech jobs may be on the chopping block.
Even if Trump keeps the digital infrastructure largely intact, his approach to technology may prove to be quite different from Obama’s. The current administration has used social media as a two-way communication tool, as much a platform for posting White House updates as it is a forum for the American people to offer feedback. So far, Trump’s transition team has used technology primarily to communicate unidirectionally to the public. When Trump presented an update about the transition on YouTube last month, all comments were disabled. And transparency has not been a cornerstone of his campaign. He has withheld his own data—including tax returns—from the American people.
“It’s a shame because there are a lot of fears in a lot of communities about what this administration could mean for them,” McSwain says. “The technology that the Obama administration set up could be used to set up conversations with those communities. If they don’t do that, it’s a huge missed opportunity.”
There are also concerns that some of Obama’s tech platforms will be used for darker purposes than originally intended. There are fears, for instance, that social media becomes a tool for propaganda and online databases designed to help people end up harming them instead. Recall the recent talk of a Muslim database, for instance. Obama’s 2012 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program invited undocumented immigrants to voluntarily hand over their personal information to the federal government to shield them from deportation and give them temporary employment authorization. Now the more than 800,000 people on that list feel extremely vulnerable, given that Trump has vowed to deport undocumented immigrants.
Some of these anxieties arise whenever there is a change of administration. Trump has not made any statements about whether technology in the White House will remain a priority. “We don’t really know what President-elect Trump believes about how we get services from government,” Slaby says. “We just haven’t seen that level of detail.” Trump’s spokesperson did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Those who helped bring about Obama’s vision for a tech-forward and innovative government will be paying close attention to what happens after January 20. But their hope is that Trump will take full advantage of the infrastructure that they spent years perfecting. “I desperately want his administration to succeed,” McSwain says. “I desperately want his administration to leverage technology to the fullest extent that they can to deliver better services, increase government accountability, and show people that there’s a real reason to have faith in their government.”