August 1, 2017

* This famous advice was from Horace Greeley, one of the greatest of America’s journalists, in the middle of the 19 century: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” It remains at least as true today.

In what now seems like the distant past, Barack Obama swept into office on a wave of technological enthusiasm. His campaign the first to be powered by sophisticated use of social media,1 and his administration promised to bring into town the brightest and best from Silicon Valley.

Finally… Washington would be a capital fit for the world’s leading technology nation.

Top of the tree would be the appointment of the first-ever “Chief Technology Officer of the United States.” The talk was of a Cabinet appointment, and there was much speculation as to who would fill it. The tech press ranged far and wide in the rumours it reported.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt? He denied he was interested.

Maybe even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos?

Side-by-side with the names of these heavy-hitters was some anxiety as to how the whole thing would work, as the new guy would have responsibilities overlapping with federal agencies like the Patent and Trademark Office. But hopes of big change were high. Alan Davidson, head of Google’s Washington office, was quoted as saying: “There is no one place for unified technology leadership in our executive branch right now.”2 But the talk was of just such a place.

Well, as Americans like to say, how did that work out for you?

President Trump’s love of weekends away needs to be redirected from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to the West Coast… To California, now the world’s sixth largest economy and specifically, to Silicon Valley, the epicentre of global digital creativity
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Four Strikes

First off, the reported idea of a Cabinet appointment with wide powers across government did not long survive. When the first federal CTO was appointed, he was a 27-year-old who had served for three years in a similar role in Virginia. Located in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an advisory unit that despite its grand name and smart recommendations has no actual power. And while he, his successors, and the parallel appointment of a Chief Information Officer, made strenuous efforts, Washington has not been transformed.

Second, there was plainly an element of myth in the carefully managed branding of Barack Obama as a technology-savvy President. One of the most interesting and least reported stories of his first administration gave the game away. On Monday, May 10 of 2010 The Guardian carried an astonishing story, aptly subtitled: “’Internet’ president, who used social media in US election, admits he can’t operate an iPad, iPod or Xbox.” Obama was speaking at a graduation ceremony at historically-black Hampton University.3 In other words: the vaunted technology President was actually a technology klutz.

These two facts go a long way to help explain two more: startling and shameful examples of Washington’s incapacity to engage in a consistent and competent way with technology.

First, the healthcare.gov debacle. Readers outside the United States may not have grasped the epic scope of this failure. The roll-out of “Obamacare,” the huge healthcare reform that was Obama’s signature policy, was managed with a Keystone Cops level of competence. It was all based on a website, and for weeks after it “opened” it remained almost impossible to use.4

Second, and far more seriously in the long term, the hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). This is the human resources agency of the federal government, and holds tens of millions of personnel records of current and former government employees. It is also widely regarded as clumsy and old-fashioned, and (like any other federal offices) uses outdated technology. In the Congressional hearing that followed;

“Damning details about OPM’s porous security emerged…. The agency’s own assistant inspector general for audits testified about what he characterised as a ‘long history of systemic failures to properly manage its IT infrastructure.’”5

The most disturbing feature of the hack was that it included tens of thousands of security clearance records with detailed personal information which could be used for “phishing” attacks (where a hacker poses as someone trusted who knows the victim) far into the future.

Point is: The OPM hack became public in 2015, midway through the second term of the Obama administration.

Despite sporadic and well-meaning efforts, Washington’s culture remains far-removed from that of the high-tech Silicon Valley companies that are powering the U.S. economy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA PROMISED TO DRAG WASHINGTON INTO THE DIGITAL AGE BUT HIS ADMINISTRATION WAS NOTABLE FOR MAJOR FAILURES IN HANDLING TECHNOLOGY. Credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA

The continental divide

So, more than eight years after the Obama non-revolution, how do we shift Washington’s political culture into a healthy engagement with tech?

Baby steps: President Trump’s love of weekends away needs to be redirected from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to the west coast. To California, now the world’s sixth largest economy6 and specifically, to Silicon Valley, the epicentre of global digital creativity and home to technology giants.

The simplest way to achieve this would be for him to move Camp David out to the Valley – and commit to spending serious presidential time there – meeting and understanding the people inventing our future.

The President’s official retreat since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Camp David is actually very close to Washington. One of the more surprising discoveries of digital revolution has been the importance of proximity. Not everything works equally well on Skype; sometimes you just have to be there. That is never truer then when culture is involved. We need an outpost for the administration in the heart of the nation’s most creative, tech-savvy culture. And that outpost needs to include the President.

FURTHER READING

For a more positive assessment of the Obama administration’s engagement in technology, a first draft for history is provided by the first federal CTO Aneesh Chopra in his book Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform GovernmentNew York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014.

FOOTNOTES
  1. For example, this assessment by two academics at INSEAD in The Guardian in November 7, 2008.
  2. Stephanie Condon’s report of 25 November 2008 for CNET.
  3. Adam Gabbatt’s report in The Guardian for 10 May 2010.
  4. Megan McArdle summarises the sorry story for Bloomberg on 16 September 2015.
  5. The October 2016 edition of Wired carried an account.
  6. Reported by Reuters, 17 June 2016

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