Last week President Trump created a White House Office of American Innovation under Jared Kushner in order to “bring together the best ideas from Government, the private sector, and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems.” Sean Spicer said it will initially “focus on modernizing the technology of every federal department, identifying transformational infrastructure projects, and reimagining the VA system.”
This is a big undertaking, to say the least. Many smart people are raising valid points about the broad scope of this effort and Kushner’s particular qualifications to lead it. Despite all that, I am encouraged by the announcement. As someone who helped found one of President Obama’s efforts in this space, the United States Digital Service, I’ve seen firsthand how challenging reforming the Federal government can be. There are many outstanding questions about how this new office will work, but it looks to be following a basic playbook that has been successful in the past. USDS was successful because of a “SWAT team” approach that empowers small, autonomous teams with a direct line to the President. The same model can work here too.
I am also not worried about this new effort duplicating or sidelining Obama-created initiatives like USDS and 18F (part of the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service). While I would have liked to see them called out explicitly in the announcement of the new office, Kushner and his team have been nothing but supportive of these groups in private and in public. I expect the Office of American Innovation to be a relatively small office that will leverage other parts of the government, including USDS and 18F, to be successful. Every White House puts its own spin on key initiatives — the test here will be how effectively Kushner can use the head start he has from the Obama Administration’s efforts in this space to avoid repeating past mistakes.
With that in mind, I want to offer three suggestions on how Kushner and his new office can get started on what The Washington Post reports is one of its first steps: “attracting top talent from both inside and outside of government.”
- Add career civil servants to the leadership team to partner with Kushner’s former business executives.
- Immediately exempt term-limited positions from the hiring freeze.
- Direct agencies to treat history of marijuana use the same way they treat history of alcohol use in the security vetting process.
First, it’s crucial to pay attention to both parts of the goal. “From both inside and outside of government” can’t just be a marketing slogan — any effort that brings in outside talent without listening to those who have firsthand knowledge of how government works is destined to fail. Kushner should add to his leadership team career civil servants to partner with his team of former business executives. USDS succeeded by focusing our hiring on external technical experts, but also bringing in innovators who had worked for years to try and make government better, partnering them with newcomers, and removing many of the impediments to progress they had faced when they were buried inside the bureaucracy.
Second, the White House must enable agencies to actually hire the right people. The government is still under a hiring freeze intended to reduce its size dramatically. While I disagree with the core premise behind the freeze, I can understand not wanting to swell the size of an organization you’re planning to redesign. Thankfully there’s an easy solution here: immediately exempt term-limited positions from the hiring freeze. USDS and 18F gew by hiring people for one to four year terms using special provisions in the law for exchanges with industry. We used these mechanisms because they better matched the interests of tech talent to take a “tour of duty” in the government rather than start a new career. They have the important side effect of not granting career employee status, and thus not expanding the size of the permanent government workforce. Allowing USDS, 18F, and other similar groups to resume term-limited hiring will help jumpstart Kushner’s initiatives without jeopardizing other goals.
Finally, the White House can take a simple step to welcome swarms of innovators who are currently blocked from serving their country. Despite the fact that one in five Americans (including everyone in Washington, DC) live somewhere with legal access to marijuana, most Federal agencies cannot hire anyone who has used the drug, even legally, in the last year or habitually in the past. This makes hiring strong technical talent far harder than it needs to be, as the FBI and others have found out when trying to hire computer security experts.
I am not suggesting allowing current employees to partake — if you work for the Federal Government you should be able to follow Federal laws. But dozens of times while I was at USDS, we had to turn down deeply qualified people who were ready and willing to serve their country because they used medical marijuana a few times the previous year or had smoked roughly once a month in the past. Hiring these people wouldn’t mean being soft on drugs or contradicting the Attorney General’s views on the subject, misguided as they are. It would simply mean evaluating them in exactly the same way the President, Kushner, or the other executives on his team would have evaluated their private sector hires. To do this, the White House should direct agencies to treat history of marijuana use the same way they treat history of alcohol use. If marijuana use was so frequent that it caused serious problems in someone’s life, they shouldn’t be in a sensitive position just as if they had serious alcohol problems. But recreational use shouldn’t affect someone’s chances of serving their country any more than recreational drinking would.
If Kushner is serious about attracting top talent to tackle the impressive list of challenges he’s laid out, he can start by doing these three things. All can be done, or at least kicked off, through the White House’s own authority so there’s no reason they can’t happen quickly. They do require making tradeoffs between truly helping the government innovate and sticking to talking points . But making tough tradeoffs is what running a business is all about, so why not put those skills to use and start here?