What happened at the White House Tech Meeting

Jennifer Pahlka
Code for America Blog


I chronicled the lead-up to the meeting last Monday here. I arrived in DC Sunday night full of the well-wishes, encouragement, advice, feedback, and warnings from the hundreds of people who tweeted, emailed, commented and called me in the previous few days. A chorus of voices in my head were saying “you’d better speak up!”

Before heading over to the White House proper, I stopped by the brownstone on Jackson Place that houses the United States Digital Service. Every time I’m there I remember the day Steve VanRoekel texted me and my colleague Casey Burns mysteriously to meet him at that address; he knew that one thing this nascent team would not be able to succeed without was space of its own, where its unique culture could develop (and where the team could get in and out easily without the inevitable delays of Secret Service security.). Thank you, Steve! The culture there survives, probably not perfectly, but it survives and inspires me still, six months into the new administration.

Steve VanRoekel and Casey Burns at what would become the USDS headquarters on Jackson Place, March 20, 2014 . Photo by me.

Then off to the visitor entrance at 17th and State, where reporters were already gathered with their cameras fitted with zoom lenses, eager to snap shots of the CEOs who’d be entering there. The secret service guy remembered me. “You used to work here, didn’t you?” “Yes, and you used to be at the staff entrance on the other side, didn’t you?” It was nice that some things were the same.

Once in the complex, I went into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, and got a quick bite to eat at the cafeteria called Ike’s, deciding (perhaps unfairly) that the food there had gone downhill. Soon it was time for the meeting to kick off in the beautiful Indian Treaty Room on the fourth floor, where we had held several meetings during my time, including the welcoming and the graduation of the second class of Presidential Innovation Fellows. There were more photographers than I’d ever seen in my time there, and when Jared Kushner opened with comments, his quiet voice competed with a chorus of camera clicks. A minute or two in, I wondered briefly why the zoom lenses were suddenly pointing in my direction; turning, I found that Ivanka Trump was standing a few people behind me.

Kushner said all the right things. His opening speech was not noticeably different from one I or my colleagues would have made. He talked about government services needing to work better for all Americans, and noted a few ways in which government makes it hard to do that, followed by a few ways his team at the Office of American Innovation is already removing those barriers. His first positive words were not for the tech CEOs in the room, but for the people doing the work:

“To date, we’ve been working with hundreds of talented civil servants who want to serve their country and see their government do better.”

Interestingly, he spoke directly to one of the reasons I’ve wanted this work to continue so badly.

“We have challenged ourselves to seed change that will provide utility to Americans far beyond our tenure here.”

Our federal government will one day be led by those with a different perspective on how to meet the need of its people, and I’d like it to be a lot easier to meet those needs than it was during my tour of duty. For him, that work is modernizing government systems.

“By modernizing these systems we will meaningfully improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans,” Kushner said.

In contrast, when Kushner’s father- in- law spoke later that afternoon, he focused less on the American people and the civil servants trying to help them, and more on the collection of power assembled that day:

“Government needs to catch up with the technology revolution. We’re going to change that with the help of great American businesses like the people assembled.” — President Donald Trump

I preferred Kushner’s focus. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From there, we dispersed to breakout sessions which included Cloud/Infrastructure Strategy, Analytics/Dashboard Strategy, Cybersecurity Strategy, Detecting and Eliminating Fraud, and the one I was assigned to on Digital Services Strategy, led by Marcy Jacobs of the USDS. Several CEOs were in this session, the most notable to me being Tim Cook of Apple. Marcy kicked off the session asking the private sector leaders, “How do you get your organizations to focus on customers?”

Now I love the team at USDS, but that’s not much of a question. If customers don’t like a company’s products, they won’t buy them, and there’s no company sooner or later. Government suffers from lack of customer focus (we would say “user focus”) because it’s a monopoly and because the public doesn’t trust government to do the right thing, so it encourages elected officials to constrain how government operates through massive layers of rules and regulations. Sure, companies can create conditions whereby they succeed while not meeting their users needs well, but this is the basic dynamic at play. And it’s not news to anyone. None of the CEOs present pointed that out. They answered the question in earnest, as if the government people in the room could not possibly be aware of this root cause. My hackles went up.

Some of the CEOs in the room who gave the longest answers represented companies that least meet their users’ needs today. I would generously characterize those answers as earnest; less generously, I’ll admit I found some of them condescending to the USDS staff in the room, who were being “techsplained” the basic doctrine of their own organization. I had promised so many people I would speak my mind at the White House, so I did, gently pointing out that the government folks around the table were among those who had fixed the veterans healthcare application, launched the College Scorecard, and helped the Department of Health and Human Services write effective regulations by iteratively working with real users. Doing that kind of user-centered work in a government context makes them the Olympians of customer focus, not the amateurs. Their challenge is spreading that approach across the vast landscape of government, and unlocking the ability of federal agencies to do this on their own.

To this point, I was happy that Tim Cook and others brought up one standard practice in tech that is very much not on display in government: dogfooding, or making sure that the leadership and staff responsible for a service or product actually use it themselves. This is a massive opportunity to change the culture of government, and I advocated for it during my time in federal government to little avail. (It is now standard practice in the UK as the final component of the Digital Service Standard.) I was also happy because it gave me an opportunity to point out that those around the table, the tech CEOs in particular, would benefit as leaders from using the services less privileged people in our country have to use to navigate their interactions with government. “Yes, we know,” replied a CEO of an enterprise software company that does significant business with government. “We deal with the IRS and it’s maddening!” She was correct, of course, though that’s not exactly what I meant.

In this session, I did what I promised colleagues and friends I would do. I spoke up for people the Trump administration is hurting with its policies. I suggested that if this agenda is about making government work better for all Americans, then it can’t just be about better government websites, we have to look at the services themselves. Those services need to be accessible to the people who need them, and we as taxpayers need to think about the greater costs to society and ultimately to government when we fail to do that. We can and should save billions a year on Medicare and Medicaid technology systems, but those improvements will be dwarfed by the costs to the American public of cutting Medicaid as the current bill before the Senate proposes to do. Those costs will be financial, and they will be human, and moral.

I said what I came to say, but I was not speaking to Kushner, Trump, Pence, or any of the other architects of the Trump agenda. I was speaking to tech CEOs, so I implored them to use their leadership positions to reframe the agenda we’d been brought to DC to inform. With one exception, I did not see evidence of that the rest of the day. I hope it happened behind doors that were not open to me.

There was a second breakout session from which I have little to report. There was some confusion and through no fault of the organizers, I ended up attending the public-private partnerships session, not the talent discussion, which I had intended to join. (The other sessions that hour focused on Purchasing and Contracting Reform, Strengthening the H1-B Visa Program, and Future Trends.) This session was interrupted by a visit from Vice President Mike Pence, which rattled me a bit. I did make the point that the talent this transformation needs is harder to recruit when many of the people who are qualified to do it are at odds with the administration’s proposed policies. But there was less opportunity to advocate in this discussion. A shout out goes to Kiron Skinner, who made the frank point that the Beltway bandits are not going to let go of their multi-billion dollar contracts for digital services typical of today’s status quo without a real fight, and that the OAI needs to plan for significant retaliation if they are successful. This with the heads of a few companies I would consider to be Beltway bandits in the room. Go Kiron!

Some of the final part of the event has been well-covered in the media. We moved to the East Room in the White House proper, the tech CEOs took their places around a large table, an enormous number of photographers and reporters were ushered in, and Trump joined to make remarks and welcome his guests. He sat under a beautiful painting of Abraham Lincoln. The CEOs went around the room and made remarks that ranged from respectful to borderline fawning. It was after the photographers and reporters were ushered out that one tech CEO brought up the people in this country who are legitimately scared of government today, and respectfully suggested that more consideration be given to their plight. Out of respect for everyone who expected this session to be private, I won’t name the person who spoke. I was grateful he did and wished others had done the same.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that there were voices that were missing from that discussion. Certainly the voices of users of government services would have changed the nature of the conversation, but if you accept the frame that this was for CEOs of the top tech companies in the US, those who came were largely leaders of companies that sell to government, at least as part of their business. Those whose businesses live or die by delighting consumers (aka regular people) were underrepresented, and not necessarily through the fault of the Office of American Innovation (OAI, who had convened the meeting). I fully respect why some tech CEOs chose not to come, but their voices would have made a difference, in part because those CEOs had less to lose by being respectfully critical. The meeting would have felt less like a chance for entrenched government players to further entrench, which I genuinely don’t believe was the intention of the folks who convened it.

I also don’t think it was the fault of the OAI organizers that the public part of the meeting was not a particularly diverse one in other dimensions. The breakout session I attended included almost half women and about a third people of color, and I would guess that the organizers made an intentional effort to ensure some diversity. It helps that the USDS team, many of whom were present, is roughly representative of the country. (In my session, the government staff at the table were all women, two of them white, and one — the head of engineering for USDS — an African American.) If the roundtable with the President had less gender and racial diversity, that speaks to the lack of diversity of Silicon Valley leadership. There were three women CEOs in the room, none of them leaders of what most would describe as disruptive Silicon Valley companies. The women-led companies that were present are well-known contractors to government today.

I left the White House that day with dramatically mixed emotions. I remain convinced that we should help a government initiative that can do real good, despite my deep concerns about the current administration’s policies. I saw only a sliver of all that went on that day, given the many concurrent sessions, but I wish I’d seen more evidence that the leadership of the tech industry can actually help government do a better job, given that so many of those who seem to be engaging have a lot invested in the status quo. I guess in some way that means that I leave this event not that far from where I started, remembering that “No one is coming. It is up to us.”



Jennifer Pahlka
Code for America Blog

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists