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Trump's tech agenda: The art of the public-private deal

May 10, 2017 (Photo Credit: The Associated Press)
Anticipation for how Donald Trump would apply his business background to the wheels of government swirled almost immediately after his election win.
 
But for federal employees and contractors interested in launching new programs and finishing ongoing projects, the trick is deciphering exactly how President Trump will apply that business acumen to the public sector.

The president partially delivered on that expectation with the March 27 unveiling of his White House Office of American Innovation, an amalgam of advisers tasked with finding the new collaborations with the private sector to help make government work more efficiently.

“This office will bring together the best ideas from government, the private sector and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems, and is positioned to meet tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities,” the memorandum announcing the office said.
 
“The office will focus on implementing policies and scaling proven private-sector models to spur job creation and innovation.”

When it comes to IT, the Office of American Innovation has tasked ongoing efforts to Reed Cordish, the newly minted assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives, who has voiced support for government innovators like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.
 
But the road to better technology and innovation ultimately leads through the private sector, so how the Trump administration continues — and proposes to advance — collaboration will be integral to its tech agenda.

“The changing nature of the tech marketplace is driving both different ways that government needs to ask for things and industry needs to provide things,” said Dave Wennergren, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Professional Services Council.

Wennergren said that the administration has set markers on some of its priorities already, ranging from cybersecurity to infrastructure, giving some insight into where the technology agenda will be focused, but ongoing efforts to refresh IT systems could force a deeper discussion on acquisition reform.

“You see this convergence of what used to be done separately as hardware purchases, software purchases, system development, integration work right into IT solutions and consumption-based buying like we see in cloud computing,” he said.  “Those kinds of issues will continue on. So, you have those issues that will be front-and-center in the year ahead.” 

The IT crowd 

Any discussion around making agency technology more innovative must start with updating its IT. 

Rumors of a Trump cybersecurity executive order that would also direct agencies to begin modernizing their IT systems have been circulating since January, when the White House hinted at debuting it before the end of the month, but instead postponed the rollout.

The order is said to provide agency leaders and chief information officers with more responsibility regarding the security of their networks and would direct all agencies to implement the National Institutes of Science and Technology’s cybersecurity framework.
 
Cordish is expected to lead the IT modernization efforts as part of the executive order, which calls on agencies to assess their cyber capabilities and vulnerabilities, according to a draft copy obtained by The Washington Post.

The move toward more agency accountability in IT isn’t a major pivot away from policies espoused by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, but there is a different nuance in the approach, said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
 
“I think we are going to see right now, in this administration, an emphasis on streamlining agencies,” he said.
 
“I think there is going to be a stronger emphasis on bringing ideas in from the private sector. So maybe looking at initiatives that may have begun during the Obama administration, like the [Defense Innovation Unit Experimental] and additions like that to work more closely with industry. I think expanding those additions will likely happen.”

New players. Same problems. New solutions? 

Many of the preeminent technology issues Trump has been looking to tackle are the same ones his predecessors faced, but this administration will look more to the private sector to find solutions.

“I think there’s a recognition that there are certain outcomes that need to be achieved,” Wennergren said, “IT modernization, better access to innovation, improved cybersecurity, data-driven decision making, adoption of commercial best practices, I think those are like, I’ll say, the moral high ground that need to be worked on.
 
“I think in the technology space, it will be less about, ‘We’re going to throw the old ideas off the bus,’ but there may be some rebranding or reshaping of how to get to those outcomes.”

With the creation of the Office of American Innovation, the White House has signaled its intention to lean more on the private sector to integrate commercial innovation into the public sphere. To achieve that, the administration will also have to make the way the government buys its tech a lot easier to navigate.

“One of the complaints I’ve heard in the past is that you have — especially on the IT side — procurement officers that know procurement, but that they don’t know IT,” Castro said. “That’s where realigning CIO authority can help because what you want to do is have that expertise there so that CIOs are able to make the call about IT acquisitions.

“Beyond that, there’s questions about accountability, how quickly you can move on certain projects. I think there will be emphasis on those types of issues.”

As the last two administrations have put a deep focus on reforming the way the government handles its technology adoption, each one has also sought to put its distinctive signature on the strategy to achieve it. How the Trump administration looks to make its mark on the modernization strategy will determine what technology the government buys to make it happen. 

“What you don’t want to do is get technology that matches an old strategy,” Castro said. “I think that will be where a lot of the tension is.

“As we saw with the Obama administration, they had to learn a pretty big lesson on health care: It’s not enough to get the policy right, you have to get the technology right.” 

The art of the IT deal

While IT modernization is a must for the government’s cyber strategy, officials are still trying to move forward with reforming how to pay for it. The time and complexity of IT acquisition has been a ripe target for reform dating back to the Obama administration.
 
Last fall, Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, put forward the Modernizing Government Technology Act to help streamline how agencies can fund and buy their IT.

The MGT Act would set up funding structures for agencies to devote toward IT modernization projects by mandating individual working capital funds for each agency to modernize their IT systems, but also sets up a central fund to “improve governmentwide efficiency and cybersecurity in accordance with the 
15 requirements of the agencies.” 

Agencies would “reprogram” their own IT funding to apply to their IT modernization efforts, effectively spending their own money on upgrade projects through individual accounts.
 
The central fund — along with an Information Technology Modernization Board to advise it — would establish a revolving pool managed by the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget that agencies would apply to receive monies for certain critical, large-scale IT projects.
   
The bill passed the House in a voice vote last September, but stalled in a lame-duck Senate. Hurd is expected to reintroduce the bill this year, when focus on IT modernization has been renewed.
 
Another aspect of IT modernization that is expected to accelerate is data migration toward the cloud. While some agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission have used cloud service providers to help shrink their data footprint, the cost savings of a cloud migration could provide a broader draw for agencies in the Trump era.

“The recognition that the U.S. is behind other nations in terms of digitization and the opportunity to digitize government services on commercial platforms is compelling,” Wennergren said.
 
“I think that will continue to be a big play for the federal government, as will issues around big data, business intelligence and how to use the massive amount of the data the government has, both for internal decision making and as an entrepreneurial engine for the economy.”   

Time to lead

While the White House continues to hone its cyber strategy, another issue that has dogged the Trump administration could affect how it implements the plan: personnel.

The administration still has a large swath of leadership positions that have yet to be filled, including at the CIO level, which Castro said would be integral to carrying out its policy.

“The biggest challenge for this administration as they are trying to restructure some of these agencies is that they don’t have a federal CIO yet that can provide that cross-agency leadership that is necessary in government,” he said. “Filling those positions so that every agency has the authority they need with a strong  CIO and then we have a strong federal CIO who can provide that cross-agency leadership and coordination.”

While the Office of American Innovation will likely be the lead driver in Trump administration’s IT and cyber policies, establishing the trickle-down leadership will be pivotal for its execution moving forward. As of April 7, the Trump administration still had 486 Senate-confirmed positions that had no nominee, while another 21 were awaiting confirmation.

“It’s really important for the president to set the tone and have the [Office of Management and Budget] director setting the tone,” Wennergren said, “But then it’s also important to have people in these key positions at the agencies ... all actively engaged in thistransformation. Because they are the ones that actually have to own the work and get it done.”

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