The Fascinating Tech People on the Biden + Harris Transition Team
And what they mean for tech priorities
During this Presidential Election season, there was very little discussion by either Joe Biden or Donald Trump about how either of their administrations would prioritize government technology across federal agencies and form policies that bolster innovation and technology in the US.
Now that the votes have generally been tabulated and it’s clear that President-elect Joe Biden will enter the White House in January, we can begin to imagine how tech policy will take shape under the Biden + Harris administration.
Unlike previous Obama and Clinton campaigns where technology was an explicit policy agenda, the Biden Harris campaign policy proposals focused on the obvious and massive economic and health challenges faced by Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This lack of messaging does not mean that the Biden + Harris administration won’t prioritize government technology. On the contrary, as I’ve detailed in past writing, there’s evidence that they will be champions of government tech.
And with the announcement last week of who will serve on the Biden + Harris transition team, we can begin to consider just how the fascinating group of tech-savvy individuals selected for the team will influence the new administration’s priorities and approach towards tech for the next four years.
Who are these people and what might their specific backgrounds in tech tell us about the upcoming Biden + Harris administration?
Office of Science & Technology Policy
Let’s start our analysis by focusing on the people serving on transition teams for the obviously tech-centered hive of government — the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
OSTP plays the critical role of advising the President and others in the Executive Office on scientific, engineering, and technological aspects across many areas ranging from the economy and the environment to national security and foreign relations.
From a review of the OSTP transition team’s expertise and past work below, key policy areas emerge including biosecurity, international technology cooperation, machine learning, climate science, privacy and tech regulation. Additionally, we see a trend in transition team members having backgrounds in promoting public understanding of science, forming connections between private sector tech companies and government and R&D budget investment.
- Cristin Dorgelo (Team Lead) — Cristin is the President Emeritus of the Association of Science & Technology Centers, which works to increase the public’s understanding and engagement with science and technology. In an era where folks are questioning science, her leadership ASTC will come in handy. Her past experiences serving as the Chief of Staff and Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the Office of Science & Technology Policy as well as serving as the Vice President of Prize Operations for the XPRIZE show that prioritizes convening government and bold startups to solve big problems.
- Andrew Hebbeler — Andrew is the Senior Director and Lead Scientist for Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. He has a deep career in academia, research and government related to biological and chemical security threats, including serving as the Team Chief in the Biosecurity Engagement Program and Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Cooperation in the Department of State. Given the global pandemic, it’s no surprise that such a biosecurity expert with prior key appointments in the State Department would be a critical voice in the transition.
- Kei Koizumi — Kei is an independent science policy consultant who previously served on the Technology, Innovation & Government Reform Policy Working Group of the Obama + Biden Presidential transition team. In his subsequent role in the Obama administration as the Assistant Director for Federal R&D and Senior Advisor to the Director of the National Science and Technology Council and various roles at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Kei has focused on R&D funding policy, which is likely the superpower he’s bringing to this transition team.
- Mahlet Mesfin — Mhalet is the Deputy Director of the Center for Science Diplomacy at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is Executive Editor of policy journal Science & Diplomacy. Like others on the transition team, she’s previously served in OSTP, specifically as the Assistant Director for International Science & Technology. These experiences combined with other previous international science policy roles, show that Mahlet is a leading voice in international science and technology policies.
- Dave Riedmiller — Dave is the Climate Center Director at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. He is the team’s voice on climate change as evidenced by his past experience serving as the Chief Climate Scientist and Climate Science & Technology Team Lead in the State Department, Acting Director of Northeast and Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Centers in the Department of the Interior and the Director of National Climate Assessment at the US Global Change Research Program.
- Pavneet Singh — Pavneet is a policy wonk on national security and trans-Pacific relationships, having previously served as the Director of International Affairs managing the US-China and US-India relationships for the National Security Council as well as serving as Senior Advisor to the Deputy National Security Advisor. In addition to his government work, he’s held various research roles at the Brookings Institute and the World Bank where he’s studied machine learning and its impact on solving a variety of challenges ranging from financial services to health care. Pavneet’s participation in the transition makes a nod to the new administration’s focus on trans-Pacific tech transfer relationships, particularly with China as well as gives a voice to machine learning and its impact on government and global relations.
- Erin Szulman — Erin has a wide-ranging career that pulls together various fields of technology, ranging from serving as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of the Department of Energy to Chief Strategy Officer at a stealth quantum computing company to her most recent work serving as the Director of Performance Improvement and Internal Operations at the nation’s largest public electric vehicle charging network EVgo. A look at her time serving as Policy Advisor to the Chief of Staff of OSTP points to additional work in clean energy as well as leadership in convening the private sector and federal government. With Erin’s inclusion on the team, it’s clear there are strong voices for clean energy investments and private sector tech involvement in the administration.
This team is well suited for the task of shaping a Biden + Harris technology agenda that prioritizes cultivating broader public understanding of science, tackling climate change, doubling down on national preparedness for future pandemics and other biohazard events and facing the tough questions regarding privacy and regulation with Big Tech.
All that said, it would be great to have more leading voices from two key areas:
- Artificial Intelligence: given the dramatic impact that artificial intelligence has had on our lives in the past decade, imagine the role it will play in the next four years. From advanced social media algorithms shaping how we view our world to the promising future of assisted and fully-automated vehicles powered by AI systems, we are living in an increasingly AI-enabled world. As such, we need a concerted policy agenda that lays the foundation for how we will govern, regulate and interact with such technologies.
- Tech + Economic Development: I know that some will say that policy matters pertaining to the economy don’t belong in OSTP, but I would argue that tech experts have a real responsibility in determining how best we can harness the 21st century innovation economy to create a wave of good paying blue collar and white collar jobs. The unprecedented automation potential of AI has some believing in a doom scenario for modern work while the promising possibility of converting to global clean energy has some believing it will create an entirely new industry ripe with jobs. Regardless of the outcome, technology has a critical role to play on the economy and it would be ideal to have a member of the transition team whose expertise aligns with this need.
United States Digital Service
Next, let’s dive into a tech-centric office that was created in 2014 under the Obama Administration — the United States Digital Service (USDS). USDS is housed in the Executive Office of the President and is charged with working across all federal agencies to improve and simplify digital services. In other words, it’s the federal hub for the herculean task of digitizing the federal government. In terms of staffing size and bureaucracy of OSTP, USDS is comparatively smaller. The result is a leaner transition team.
The two individuals selected for the USDS transition team bring very different strengths to the table (as detailed below). Matt Bailey is the administrative policy leader and Andrew Nacin is the engineering leader. Given USDS’ mission, it’s not unsurprising that both of them were brought in to understand the current administrative and technical engineering status of USDS.
- Matt Bailey (Team Lead) — Matt has built a career threading together technology, civic engagement and human rights. In his current role as Digital Freedom Program Director, he focuses on issues of digital inclusion, disinformation surveillance that impacts the free speech of writers and journalists around the world. He is also a Member of the Board of Advisors for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a former Senior Advisor for Democratic Technology and Innovation for the National Democratic Institute. He’s also served in government as the Acting Policy Unit Chief and Digital Services Expert for the White House Office of Management and Budget, User Experience Manager for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Director of Technology Innovation for the District of Columbia. Combined, these experiences show a clear agenda for government transparency and user-designed digital services.
- Andrew Nacin — Andrew is a software engineer who has managed government and private sector teams of developers responsible for building scaled, globally reaching software platforms. As the Lead Developer at WordPress, he’s helped create one of the world largest website content publishing platforms. In addition to this private sector experience, he’s previously served in the USDS as a Software Engineer and Senior Advisor where he coordinated teams of cross-agency engineers on a variety of projects. Andrew is also currently listed as Director of Engineering at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Andrew is clearly the software engineer who knows how to manage dev teams to tackle big software problems within complex government systems.
Together their backgrounds in blending civic engagement with technology and mobilizing the technical teams required to overhaul complex government systems form a bright, albeit broad view into what USDS will look like under the new administration. USDS and government digitization should be a critical component of the next administration and adding more experts in specific areas would help us better understand what USDS specific priorities will be.
In particular, it would be great to see the addition of transition team members with expertise in:
- Financial Technology — Given the massive blunders in the Trump administration’s ability to deploy Congressionally approved money to people and businesses impacted by the pandemic, it would be prudent to include a transition team member with fintech experience whose presence signals a focus on updating how federal agencies make payments and transfer funds. Moreover, as the US moves towards digital banking services, USDS could look at how the federal government could play a role in leveraging its connections with millions of Americans to help develop key technologies that would contribute to banking the unbanked.
- Machine Learning — In addition to adding more AI-power to the OSTP transition team, it would be great to see either a machine learning administrative expert or a machine learning engineer. Either additions would signal that the Biden + Harris administration will prioritize the development of machine learning technologies in its broader federal digitization strategy. It would also show that the new administration recognizes the contemporary criticisms of machine learning algorithms (e.g. encoded racial discrimination) and that USDS is equipped with the talent to build and manage more responsible systems.
What About the Other Transition Teams?
Technology is embedded into every facet of modern industry and life. This is true in the federal government too. Let’s take a look at members of other transition teams whose backgrounds in tech may give us insights into how other federal agencies will prioritize tech-centric agendas.
Department of Commerce
- Colleen Chien — Colleen is an intellectual property legal researcher and professor at Santa Clara University, a Fellow at the Stanford Computation Policy Lab and former Obama Administration Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer on matters of innovation and intellectual property.
- Denice Ross — Denice is a Senior Fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship where she works census data quality issues. She’s also a former Data Strategy Lead at New America think tank and previous leading figure in the Obama Administration’s effort to found the White House Police Data Initiative.
Department of Defense
- Victor Garcia — Victor has a long engineering track record including serving as USDS Director of Engineering in the Obama administration and most recently holding the position of Engineering Rebel with Rebellion Defense — a startup that connects technologists with the government to work on national security problems.
- Andrew Hunter — Andrew is the Director of Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where he’s working on issues affecting the industrial base including emerging technologies and the defense acquisition system.
Department of Education
- Keia Cole — Keia is a former Chief of Staff to the Deputy Secretary of Education who currently serves as the Head of Digital Experience at MassMutual where she is responsible for driving the insurance company’s digital transformation efforts.
Department of Energy
- Hannah Lee — Hannah is an experienced software and big data product manager with a background in environmental engineering who has held positions ranging from Battery Technology and Cell Quality Safety and Regulatory Product Manager with Tesla to Product Lead of the State of California’s COVID19.ca.gov response website.
Department of Health and Human Services
- Mina Hsiang — Mina is VP of Policy and Government Affairs for the healthcare tech company Devoted Health as well as the Co-founder and former Executive Director of the Digital Service at the Department of Health and Human Services and former Senior Advisor to the White House for Healthcare and Health Data in the Trump administration.
- Natalie Kates — Natalie was also a Cofounder and Head of Product of the Digital Service at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration.
- Geoff Roth — Geoff is Co-Founder of an Indian-led health technology company Inaji that builds solutions specific for Indian Country as well as a former Senior Advisor to the Indian Health Service in the Obama Administration.
Department of Homeland Security
- Robert Silvers — Paul is a former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Cyber Policy in Homeland Security in the Obama Administration and currently serves as a Partner at Paul Hastings where he specializes in cybersecurity law.
Department of Interior
- Chris Goranson — Chris is a GIS technician by training who has had a wide ranging career in building citizen-facing digital services that includes serving as Experience Design Lead at 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellow at the US Department of Interior in the Obama administration and Director of Parsons Institute for Information Mapping.
Department of State
- Frances Colón — Frances served as the Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State in the Obama administration where she worked on emerging technology policies and connecting technology and innovation to foreign policy.
- Raphael Majma — Raphael has held a number of technology positions in government administration including serving as Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer, Product Manager at 18F, Policy Lead and Immigation Portfolio Lead as USDS and Director of Digital Service at the State Department.
Department of Treasury
- Liyan Chang — Liyan is a software engineer who played a role in fixing botched roll-out of healthcare.gov site and a former Senior Advisor to the Administrator at USDS.
- Nicole Isaac — Nicole is the Senior Director for North America Policy at LinkedIn, founder of tech employment development organization Code the Streets and former White House Special Assistant to the President for issues pertaining to technology workforce development, intellectual property, patent and banking reform.
Department of Veterans Affairs
- Andrea Ippolito — Andrea is the former Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovators Network that enables VA employees to develop innovations that improve the experience of Veterans and their families and prior to this role, she served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in OSTP.
Environmental Protection Agency
- Ann Dunkin — Ann is the former Chief Information Officer of the US Environmental Protection Agency and currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer for State and Local Governments at Dell Technologies.
General Services Administration
- Michael Hornsby — Michael is a software developer and product manager who served as the acting Chief Information Officer in the Executive Office of the President before joining Salesforce as their Director of Customer Success.
- Natalie Evans Harris — Natalie is the former Senior Policy Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer in the Obama Administration who established the federal data science community of practice, called the Data Cabinet.
- Sean Roche — Sean is the former Associate Deputy Director for Digital Innovation at the Central Intelligence Agency where he led cyber intelligence, open source collection, data curation and data science.
National Security Council
- Austin Lin — Austin has served as a Research Fellow at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Deputy Director of Information Technology at The White House, Technical Program Manager at Facebook and most recently he has joined the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as a Technical Program Manager.
Office of Management & Budget
- Mark Schwartz — Mark is software and innovation lead with experiences serving previously as the Chief Information Officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and currently as an Enterprise Strategist for Amazon Web Services.
US Postal Service
- Aneesh Chopra — Aneesh is most well known for being the first U.S. Chief Technology Officer appointed to the position by the Obama administration in 2009 and is currently the President of the health tech company CareJourney
A Final Thought: Technology Matters
The depth of transition team members who possess technology backgrounds signals towards a new administration where the revival of technology as key to government and operations is almost certain. And for good reason, as we begin to step into the 2020’s, we need more government administrators (and elected officials!) who understand the impact and importance of technology.