At the end of March, the White House Office of American Innovation will mark its one-year anniversary. From workforce shortages and infrastructure challenges to reforming prisons and addressing the opioid crisis — the missions to tackle are gargantuan.
And the real work has barely started.
“We set up the office for long-term projects, sort of multiyear, which were large and impactful and where we really thought the White House could make a difference,” Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and an OAI official, said in an interview with Federal Times. “None of these projects will come about with a month’s work. They’re multimonths’ work and they’re probably multiyears in terms of their solutions.”
OAI cut a wide swath in terms of projects. But many of its more significant waves recently came by way of efforts supporting government IT modernization. Members of industry regard OAI as the first of its kind in the White House, even as the office builds upon accomplishments made in previous administrations.
The approach contrasts what is typical for most administrations that come into office: assume the prior management strategy is flawed and dismantle that system. That cycle prevents any progress.
“I give them a lot of credit for picking up and accepting a lot of what was done at the tail end of the previous administration — the MGT [Modernizing Government Technology] Act and the focus on cyber and the like — and continuing that as opposed to falling prey to what others have done in the past,” said Alan Balutis, senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco.
The Trump administration and OAI have gained from a culture shift around technology modernization in government, added Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the IT Alliance for Public Sector.
“They’re building on the strong foundations that previous administrations have set, but they’re taking steps that we were, for various reasons, unable to take in the past,” Hodgkins said. “We simply have a different dynamic about technology and how people understand it, what people expect of it. And we also have, in the policy realm, the critical mass that this is an imperative.
A year of change
President Donald Trump directed the establishment of the Office of American Innovation March 27, 2017, presenting it as a hub for policy proposals to improve government operations and services. At the time, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was appointed to lead a group of senior White House staff, including Liddell. Since then, Matt Lira, former senior adviser to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has also joined OAI.
But a number have moved on as well. Senior Counselor to the President for Economic Initiatives Dina Powell left her position in January 2018 under reportedly good terms with the White House. And Reed Cordish, the lead for intergovernmental and technology initiatives, announced his resignation in February, replaced by Brooke Rollins, former aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
To Mike Hettinger, managing principal at Hettinger Strategy Group and former House of Representatives Republican leadership chief of staff, such moves signal a period of change for the whole administration.
“I think you’re going to see the administration in transition here over the next few months, and that probably goes beyond the Office of American Innovation,” he said. But “anytime you lose one of those leaders, there’s going to be some sort of transition.”
According to a senior White House official who spoke to Federal Times, OAI has worked to establish itself as an office “to set up infrastructure that will survive” past its founders, by focusing on the bipartisan work it can accomplish. Modernizing government services, workforce of the future and infrastructure — those are all very across the aisle initiatives.
Rich Beutel, principal at Cyrrus Analytics and former counsel for acquisition and IT policy for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that he initially doubted whether OAI had the oversight teeth to enforce the policy changes it developed.
“I got an interesting response, talking to one of the leadership folks in that office, and they said, ‘Well, you don’t understand that Chris Liddell is a force of nature,’ ” Beutel said, adding that Liddell has a strong enough voice within the highest levels of government to make sure that agencies are held accountable for implementing new policy. “Their effectiveness and ability to push change and cultural adaptation, to what I was told, is going to be successful, and has real heat.”
Major policy efforts
Since its creation, the Office of American Innovation has focused on two primary IT initiatives: publication of an IT Modernization Report and the creation of a Centers of Excellence program to drive agencies to the cloud and better data management.
Though the Centers of Excellence program is still in its infancy, having launched in December 2017, it received major callouts in the president’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal. According to the White House official, the formal launch of the Centers of Excellence at the Department of Agriculture, which serves as the pilot agency for the program, is likely to take place in the next few months.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the thinking aspect, and we’re now into the operational side,” the official said. “Part of the thinking there is to not only do great work, but to institutionalize the skill and knowledge associated with that work in what we’ve described as the Centers of Excellence. At the same time as we’re flying along with the plane, we’re designing the plane as sustainable for the next few years, even past this administration.”
The proposed budget also said that the administration plans to create cross-agency priority teams to lead the implementation of recommendations from the OAI’s IT Modernization Report.
In fact, OAI has often relied on teams outside the White House to accomplish major policy changes. For example, the Centers of Excellence program is within the General Services Administration and, according to GSA officials, looks to rely on existing contract vehicles to bring in industry support.
“They have used GSA, they have used OMB and others as their arms and legs to help do the things they want to do,” Hettinger said. “They have a big, broad policy vision, and then [they have] GSA, TTS, 18F, some of those groups to help them operationalize what they’re trying to do.”
Liddell said that OAI often switches, based on what’s needed, between a leading and supporting role on White House projects.
“We have an incredibly tiny staff, but a relatively senior one, who can convene and run meetings and set deadlines, and really hold people accountable in an effective fashion,” the senior White House official told Federal Times.
New year, new objectives
As the Office of American Innovation moves into its second year, it will need to follow through on many initiatives started in the first year, as well as the development of new projects.
According to Hettinger, the focus will likely turn from how to modernize IT systems to how data is used within those systems: how to improve customer service, and how to get smart about data analytics. But implementation of policy is always a challenge.
The OAI and its influence in White House IT policy will also have to contend with a new major player in the IT arena. Trump recently announced the appointment of Suzette Kent to the role of federal CIO, a position that remained vacant for the first year of his administration.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the activities of the Office of American Innovation and the new federal CIO interact,” Hettinger said, adding that the two will have to look for ways to work together.
“We’re really looking forward to her joining, and we’re setting her up, hopefully, for success,” said the White House official, explaining that OAI has made a point to work with the acting federal CIO for the past year. “We would love for her to pick up and run with some of the things we’ve been working on.”
In addition, many of the senior IT and acquisition positions within the government that were vacant for the Trump administration’s first year are beginning to fill, adding to the list of people with influence over IT policy.
“For the longest time they’ve been the only show in town,” Balutis said.
But the White House official said that the OAI, which works in six-month policy objective rotations, is close to finalizing its outlook for the beginning of the second year.
“Last year was really getting the ball moving on a lot of these initiatives,” he said. “This year, hopefully we can pick up speed on them and really deliver.”
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.