Trump to Tech CEOs: Washington Needs To Catch Up Digitally

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By:  Olivia Solon

Donald Trump called for “sweeping transformation of the federal government’s technology” during the first meeting of the American Technology Council, established by executive order last month.

Eighteen of America’s leading technology executives — including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos [middle row, left], Apple CEO Tim Cook [top row, left], Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella [middle row, center], and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google parent Alphabet — convened at the White House Monday for the summit.

“Government needs to catch up with the technology revolution,” said Trump. “America should be the global leader in government technology just as we are in every other aspect, and we are going to start our big edge again in technology — such an important industry.”

The tech leaders spent four hours meeting officials including vice-president Mike Pence, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross before meeting with the president. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, was also present.

They discussed modernizing the government’s technological infrastructure, cutting fraud and government costs and improving services for taxpayers. The White House believes these measures could save up to $1tn over 10 years.

“Together we will unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before,” said White House senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, before the sessions started.

Kushner highlighted some astonishing examples of outdated federal IT infrastructure, including the fact that the defense department still uses 8in floppy disks on some of its legacy systems. He also mentioned that civilian agencies maintain more than 1.6m email addresses per month using on-premise servers at an average cost of $20-per-user per month. Switching to cloud-based email services could reduce these costs down to $3-per-user per month, he said.

“Our goal here is simple: we are here to improve the day to day lives of the average citizen. That’s a core promise and we are keeping it,” said Kushner.

“We will foster a new set of startups focused on gov-tech, and be a global leader in the field making government more transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs.”

Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka, who served as deputy chief technology officer under the Obama administration and attended the meeting, said that Kushner “said the right words” but that the strategy built on Obama-era plans.

“Because they have the benefit of a congress that’s friendly to this administration they have the ability to pursue some regulation changes that some of my colleagues who worked on under Obama wanted,” she said.

However, the impact of modernizing the delivery of public services will be limited if the budgets for the underlying services are slashed by the Trump administration. She cited the “very deep cuts” to Medicaid as an example.

“Some of the budget cuts are inconsistent with the idea of making the government work better for all Americans equally,” she said.

The tech CEOs were also pushing their own agendas, according to Recode. Bezos, for example, called on the government to take advantage of the type of commercial technology that Amazon sells. Palantir CEO Alex Karp said that big data analysis, the kind Palantir offers, could help stop fraudulent federal spending. Apple’s Tim Cook wanted coding to be made a requirement in schools.

This was the first meeting of the American Technology Council since the president announced its creation in an executive order signed on 11 May.

Within the order, which builds on plans laid out by the Obama administration, Trump announced the creation of the council, whose mission is to “coordinate the vision strategy and direction for the federal government’s use of information technology and the delivery of services through information technology.”

The council was given 90 days to come up with a plan to transition antiquated, fragmented systems across government to either “one or more consolidated network architectures” or “shared IT services, including email, cloud and cybersecurity services.”

Other members of the council include: Ajay Banga, the CEO of Mastercard; Safra Catz, co-CEO of Oracle; Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir; Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel; Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM [center row, right]; and Peter Thiel.

The council is led by Chris Liddell, a top aide to Trump and the former chief financial officer of Microsoft.

Notably absent from the meeting was Facebook — neither Mark Zuckerberg nor Sheryl Sandberg [top row, center] were able to attend due to “scheduling conflicts.” It was the only one out of the top-five most valuable companies in the US to not have a representative at the meeting.

The meeting comes at a time when a number of people in the tech world have chosen to distance themselves from Trump after he withdrew from the Paris climate accord. Elon Musk [bottom row, left], founder and CEO of Tesla and Space X, announced on Twitter: “Am departing presidential councils. Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”

Before that, Uber’s embattled CEO Travis Kalanick [bottom row, right] left Trump’s business advisory council after the company faced criticism for working closely with the Trump administration and for its response to the White House’s travel ban affecting people from seven Muslim majority countries.

In January, the social media meme #DeleteUber exploded online after the ride-sharing company was accused of exploiting the travel ban for commercial gain. In protest to the travel ban, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called on its members to avoid JFK airport. However, Uber flouted the strike although removed surge pricing from journeys to and from the airport. It was far from Uber’s most egregious undertakings, but enough to give arch rival Lyft a 7% boost in users.

Uber apologized for the misunderstanding and Kalanick sent a memo to all of Uber’s staff.

“There are many ways we will continue to advocate for just change on immigration, but staying on the council was going to get in the way of that,” he said.