Can Jared fix federal IT?

Seasoned government managers are hopeful about an innovation effort backed by the president, but they see pitfalls and the possibility of duplication.

Editorial credit: Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock.com
 

Presidential adviser Jared Kushner shown here with his wife, Ivanka Trump, at a 2016 New York City gala. (Photo credit: Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock.com.)

President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, himself the scion of a powerful New York real estate family and the owner of the New York Observer, is slated to lead a government reinvention effort based in the White House.

The White House Office of American Innovation is designed to align government operations with best practices from the private sector.

"Government is not business," said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer at his March 27 briefing. "We recognize that there are certain things businesses would never do, in terms of what government has to do, because it serves all our people, but there are certain practices we can put in place that can help us deliver a better product, a better service to the American people in some of those key areas."

Some of those key areas, according to the administration, include modernizing government tech, rethinking the Department of Veterans Affairs and improving U.S. infrastructure.

Having such an effort based in the White House and run by an individual who clearly has the ear of the president could go a long way to bringing about success, many former executive branch officials told FCW.

"Most public administration experts recommend that management improvement responsibility be placed at the highest level possible," said Robert Shea, formerly associate director for administration and government performance at the Office of Management and Budget and currently a principal at Grant Thornton. "This is that."

Shea, who served at OMB during the George W. Bush administration, recalled a similar effort during his tenure.

"My old boss [former Deputy Director for Management] Clay Johnson was the president's best friend, and had the president's ear," Shea said. "That meant more people paid attention than otherwise would have."

Tim Young, a principal for Deloitte's public sector practice and the former deputy administrator for E-Government and IT at OMB, said he hopes the new effort tries to "channel, not duplicate, existing innovation programs in government."

He noted that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as well as the U.S. Digital Service and the Government Services Administration's innovation portfolio are already focused on "harvesting and incubating" innovations from the private sector. "I would recommend that the administration use those," rather than reinvent efforts, Young said.

Getting funding from Congress and buy-in from career agency people also is critical, said Terry Gerton, president of the National Academy for Public Administration.

"There's no magic bullet," she said. "If you're going to make changes, you're going to need to fund them, and you're going to need the folks inside those agencies to be on board. Otherwise, as we know from experience, government is effective at waiting people out."

Former federal CIO Tony Scott agreed. "You've gotta have leadership from the top, but you’ve really get that operational level of management, which might a layer or two down, engaged -- or nothing is going to happen," he said.

Scott pointed to the President's Management Council as a potential resource for the Kushner-led initiative. Made up largely of agency chief operating officers and run by OMB's deputy director of management, the council key to efforts like the 2015 cyber sprint, he said. "When you brought that group together, you have the operational expertise across government to really get things done."

At press time, OMB had not responded to FCW's request for additional details on the initiative.  But Kushner is being aided by some senior Trump appointees, including Gary Cohn, director of the National Policy Council, and tech adviser Reed Cordish, who is assistant to the president for intergovernmental and technology initiatives. Other players on the innovation team include Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser, Andrew Bremberg, director of the Domestic Policy Council, and Chris Liddell, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives, according to the Washington Post article announcing the new office.

"It's not clear exactly what the complete agenda is going to be, but I'm encouraged by some of the names that are involved," said Scott, an Obama appointee. "I know Chris Liddell," a former Microsoft colleague, Scott said, calling him "very good to work with…. He's seen the big hard problems."

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking member of the Government Operations subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, is encouraged by the focus on IT.

"If Jared Kushner can prove to be an ally on the modernization of both the procurement and management of IT in the federal government, that would be a very welcome development," Connolly told FCW. "I see it as a potentially enormous opportunity, and I hope we have a chance to exploit that opportunity," he said.

Connolly and Scott both want to see the new administration rally behind the Managing Government Technology Act, which provides funding mechanisms to move agency IT operations to the cloud.

"The MGT Act is an important concept -- and one that I've heard there is strong support for," Scott said.

At the same time, Connolly cautioned that "the portfolio given to him looks a lot like the statutory responsibility of the deputy director for management" at OMB.

"How do you avoid redundancy? Or are you supplanting the statutory position of DDM with an ad hoc appointment?" Connolly asked. He's also worried that Kushner, who is also a senior domestic policy adviser and supposedly a leading voice in the administration on the Middle East peace process, might have too many balls to juggle to do anything effectively.

"That's biting off more than a normal mortal can chew," Connolly said.

Chris Cumminksy, former acting undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security, told FCW there is already a lot of activity on IT procurement inspired by private-sector best practices. Programs designed to leverage the federal government's purchasing power, such as the GSA's category management initiative, could be welcomed by the Trump administration because they are business oriented, he said.

But business executives who participate with the Kushner group are going to need assurances about how their advice will be used.

There are people who will want to share their expertise, Young said, but to get real cooperation from the Googles and Apples and Teslas of the world, "the White House is going to have to do so in a way that protects private-sector IP."

Dave Wennergren, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Professional Services Council, is concerned that industry participants might sacrifice their opportunity to participate down the road.

"If you're an adviser to this little cell," Wennergren asked, "does that ice you out of actually being a provider of that service later?"

In the end, a lot will depend on Kushner himself and his ability of to keep his team focused.

Young said he "would look for incremental, small but impactful results ... in increments of months, not years," and for how career staff and congressional stakeholders respond to policy ideas.

"I have questions about how it's implemented and if the people in charge have the capacity to do this," Shea said. "But it's assignment of management improvement at the highest level of government, and that's a key ingredient to success."

From the press room podium, Spicer sounded convinced.

"I think when you look at some of the business acumen of Jared and some of the other individuals who he is bringing into this process… I think it is a great service to this country," he said.

A former employee of Kushner's sounded a different note, however. Former New York Observer Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Spiers worked for Kushner when he took over the weekly newspaper -- his first high-profile media investment.

"In my experience: Jared will give people who have experience in an industry he's never worked in advice re: how to do their jobs," Spiers noted on Twitter.

Aisha Chowdhry, Mark Rockwell and Troy K. Schneider contributed to this report.

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