SAN FRANCISCO — In the waning hours of Barack Obama’s presidency, a group of tech luminaries, many of whom helped the outgoing administration digitize government services, gathered in a trendy office space in San Francisco for a discussion that few, if any, predicted having prior to Election Day: What happens to their efforts once President Donald Trump takes office?
The chief speakers were Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America, a nonpartisan organization aimed at closing the gap between the delivery of public services and private-sector innovation, and Tim O’Reilly, a venture capitalist and activist who popularized the phrases “open source” and “Web 2.0.” There was a duality to the talk, as Pahlka, O’Reilly, and the tech and government workers in the audience oscillated between hope and fear: fear that Trump would use tech advancements to orchestrate promises made during his inflammatory campaign, and hope that the work started by civic-minded technologists under Obama would continue to progress, fostering better services for more people.
For all of the trepidation about what Trump will do to tech, and at what point tech workers might draw the line in meeting his requests, both speakers agreed that improving government through technology has been so vastly beneficial to the public that the work is worth continuing.
“If you look at the budget of the United States federal government … it’s food assistance and Medicaid and veteran’s benefits,” Pahlka said during the discussion. “And those things need to happen, and they need to happen way better than they happen today. And if the tech industry says ‘F you’ and walks away, the progress we’ve made on making these things better is going to erode or fall apart — not because someone else brought it on us, but because [of us].”
In the most direct support of her optimism, Pahlka told the crowd she had spoken to members of the GOP who were excited to continue the Obama administration’s digital progress. Her impression was that both established Republicans and Trump advisers think recent government tech work “is awesome, because it is.” Providing better, digitized government services at lower costs excites both parties, and while Pahlka, of course, could not predict what would happen, she doubted such work would be erased.
“It’s possible that it’s actually going to accelerate,” said Pahlka.
That statement was the highwater mark of the night’s optimism. It, as well as most other positivity, was tapered by noting that Trump’s victory was fueled by inflammatory rhetoric likely contrary to beliefs held by much of the tech talent brought into government during the Obama years.
“The challenge of working for an administration that has said the things that this administration has said — nobody is minimizing that,” Pahlka said. “I think it’s a huge, huge struggle. But at this time, the opportunities to serve people far outweigh the challenges.”
Pahlka was certain most technologists would remain interested in government services under Trump, owing to the rewarding nature of the work, which she described as “just a profound experience that changes you when you do it.”
To reassure concerns, Pahlka also described how the tech work done for the federal government has created a model for state and local agencies, a model they can move forward with regardless of who is president.
One potentially disruptive piece of that work is the procurement process. Obama-era tech agencies within the federal government have introduced experiments that subvert the traditional RFP cycles and allow for companies to build one piece at a time, test prototypes, fail and then iteratively improve the product. There’s micropurchasing, where agencies put out bids for bits of code that can be paid from a credit card. And then there’s the blanket purchase agreement, which sets up ongoing contracts with vendors who can then compete with each other for work. Governments at the state and local level have started adopting those concepts.
O’Reilly, the decidedly less rosy of the two speakers, led by describing the work of technologists in government as less than 1 percent complete. In response to Pahlka noting that government work was more rewarding than the private sector because it forces a focus on all people rather than a target market, O’Reilly voiced concern that Trump would enact policy to only serve certain people.
His peak optimism was arguably his citing of the famed quote from the Battle of Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” O’Reilly said that negative reaction to Trump thus far has been to his rhetoric, and everyone, technologists included, would do well to save energy for combating real actions instead.
“We’re wasting all this energy worrying about what might happen, and [not enough] building capacity,” said O’Reilly. “So for me one of the questions I have is what does building capacity look like, so that when things are not just rhetoric but might actually be happening, we’re more prepared to deal with it.”
Peter Leyden, founder of the media site Reinvent and the moderator of the talk, started off the night with the words of a eulogy: “We are gathered here on the last day of the Obama administration.”
Such is the concrete foundation for tech’s pessimism as Trump takes office: It’s not just that a wild card of a man, an ideological opponent to the deep-blue tech industry of the West Coast, is rising to power. It’s that Obama, the tech president, is leaving.
It may have been that the Internet truly exploded while George Bush was in office, and that smartphones burst onto the scene, but it was Obama who welcomed tech to the federal government with open arms. In his eight years in office, Obama appointed the first chief information officer, the first chief technology officer, the first chief data scientist, the first White House chief digital officer. He started up the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the U.S. Digital Service and 18F. He set up the TechHire initiative. His administration was the fertile soil from which grew massive grant programs for funding development in the Internet of Things, renewable energy, and connected and self-driving vehicles. And on and on.
Where does Trump stand on these topics?
Even as the new administration comes in, civic tech leaders lack answers to that question. In his inaugural speech, Trump barely mentioned technology. On the reset homepage for the administration, whitehouse.gov, the “issues” section doesn’t mention technology. He’s appointed a White House chief digital officer, but remains mum on the fate of USDS, 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellows, the Technology Transformation Service, and all the work and people tied to them.
At the San Francisco talk, O’Reilly noted that it can be difficult to sustain that level of innovation as power shifts to new people. In the United Kingdom, he said, the people responsible for introducing a more tech-oriented approach to government have largely been replaced with “the old guard.”
“That’s the thing I worry about that [could] happen, but I’m not sure it is,” O’Reilly said. “The jury’s still out.”
It’s not just support for technology, and the question of whether tech will have a seat at the table, that’s driving the trepidation in the field as Trump takes office. It’s the fear of what the new president might want as well.
Civic tech is about making government work better for the people — what happens if the government demands that tech leaders build something they believe would hurt people?
“Let’s say the challenge is how do we make the social safety net more robust and cheaper and more responsive and a better user experience for people — there you go, everybody’s all for it,” O’Reilly said. “If you go, ‘How do we get all those Muslims registered so we can roll them into camps?’ or ‘How do we get all these people deported?’ or whatever … actually, we’d like government to be incredibly inefficient for that.”
Somewhere, Pahlka said, there’s a line that some people won’t be willing to cross. But where that line is, and whether the incoming administration will approach it, remains foggy.
Perhaps the issue the tech industry has been loudest about is the prospect of building the tools necessary to support a registry of Muslims — an idea Trump has sent conflicting signals on since the days of his campaign. But even the suggestion of the registry was enough to prompt technologists to sign a pledge not to help build such a system.
Then there’s Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, symbolic or otherwise. The Bay Area, and all the expertise it can bring to government, is filled with talented immigrants capable of driving change. The chief executive officer of Google, Sundar Pichai, was born in India. Tim Papandreou, who led San Francisco’s efforts in the Smart City Challenge, is from Australia.
As of Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, there was nothing about immigration on whitehouse.gov. No mention of a border wall, no description of a Muslim registry.
With so much uncertain about what Trump’s presidency will look like, the talk ended without action plans or concrete statements.
What the tech industry is left with is hope and fear. There is always, O’Reilly said, both hope and fear.
“You have to use them both,” O’Reilly said.
Then he turned to the audience, full as it was with technology leaders who continue to work to improve government, and asked a question: Who felt more like Eeyore, the sad-sack donkey, and who felt more like the bouncy, enthusiastic Tigger?
There were several Eeyores. But there were more Tiggers.