It was a full house last week at 1600 Penn. as President Donald Trump opened his doors to a gaggle of tech CEOs to talk about modernizing the U.S. government. Among the all-star lineup were Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt.
All this, as of the once-filled desks at departments key to bringing the government in the 21st century remain empty.
Trump has yet to appoint a science advisor, which breaks with decades of practice in Republican and Democratic administrations. That advisor typically heads up OSTP, which among other things advises the government on everything from artificial intelligence to climate change. Senators have issued letters pleading with the president to fill out the OSTP staff. Other departments important to innovation efforts are almost comically understaffed. The U.S Digital Service, for example, is looking to recruit, via a blog post published earlier this month. And for anyone paying attention, they’ll realize that this is actually the issue facing the government’s efforts to modernize.
So! The White House “Tech Week” is now in the books, and aside from some quality photo ops, it’s unclear if anything’s actually gonna come from it. “Tech week” looks headed for the same fate as “infrastructure week”—punchlines for the Trump administration’s tendency to focus on branding, over getting actual work done, as controversy swirls around his presidency.
So is Tech Week still a thing?
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 23, 2017
Now, with “tech” having been addressed, the administration’s on to “energy week” while pushing a budget that will slash research and development spending. Politico calls it “the deepest cuts in innovations investments that any administration has ever proposed.”
The silver lining? It’s not really in Trump’s hands.
“There’s a couple of interesting things that you quickly realize when you go to work in tech policy. [One] is that the federal government has very little directive power to do much of anything,” said Michael Daniel, who currently works as president of the Cyber Threat Alliance and formerly served as special assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator at the White House.
“In order to be effective in tech policy you actually have to build a lot of consensus among industry and other elements to persuade [tech companies] that you’ve got a direction that they want to go,” Daniel continued.
In other words, it can’t happen in a week.
But the Trump administration also can’t really undo all the work that was done under Barack Obama’s administration. The government pushed out several initiatives related to the tech sector under the former president. Most notably, Tech Hire was a campaign launched in March 2015 to expand the tech industries in local economies by building talent pipelines in those communities.
Those programs don’t necessarily need Trump to succeed.
Initiatives like Tech Hire still exist and are thriving in some areas such as Atlanta. John C. Yates, the partner-in-charge of the technology practice at the law firm Morris, Manning & Martin, is referred to many as the godfather of Atlanta’s tech scene.
Yates said that Tech Hire, while it may be an Obama-era program, aligns with the current administration’s goal for a strong American economy.
“You can’t grow the economy unless you grow the workforce. We can either increase immigration (which the current administration has not been in favor of) or you can better train the workforce here,” Yates said.
Beyond Atlanta, another bipartisan effort exists. The Tech Jobs Tour, launched earlier this year, is a private effort dedicated to placing talent in tech jobs. Founder Leanne Pittsford runs the group Lesbians Who Tech, while Megan Smith—formerly chief technology officer under the Obama administration—serves as an advisor.
“There’s conversation outside of the administration. Where is opportunity, and what do I have access to? It’s meeting people where they are,” said Mitali Chakraborty, chief experience officer at Tech Jobs Tour.
“No one wants to be the next Silicon Valley. They just want to be the best version of their city,” Chakraborty said. “They know it’s the identity of their own city and their future.”
They aren’t turning a blind eye to the administration, of course.
“We just feel like we have a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do on the state level, the local level, the private level,” Chakraborty said. “Regardless of who’s in office, we’re doing the work … businesses are going to keep starting and stopping, the economy is going to keep moving. I always say red states, blue states, it doesn’t matter. Jobs are purple.