The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I worked for Obama, but I’m going to Trump’s tech meeting. Here’s why.

Modernizing the government would be good for all Americans.

President Trump will convene tech leaders at the White House on Monday. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Until recently, filling out an application for food stamps in California took up to an hour and required a desktop computer and broadband Internet. If you didn’t have access to a computer, you’d have to apply in person at an office and fill out dozens of pages of forms. Today, you can apply on your mobile phone in seven minutes.

We can build a government that works for real people, not just those of us with means and power, and do it at a cost and quality that match what we see in the market as consumers. I believe that if “we the people” embrace our rights and responsibilities as citizens, we can bring government services into the 21st century.

Those fundamental beliefs led me to the White House in 2013, where I served as deputy chief technology officer and helped found the U.S. Digital Service to remake the digital experiences that individuals and businesses have with their government. I am immensely proud of what we accomplished together, and I continue to support that mission today as the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Code for America, where we use the same principles to improve how local governments deliver services such as food stamps.

And those same beliefs will bring me back to the White House on Monday to attend a meeting convened under the auspices of the American Technology Council, established by executive order last month. The purpose of the council is to modernize federal government IT so that it can deliver the digital services that the American public deserves. This is a positive development that builds on the broad strategy we began in the Obama administration.

I believe that, outside of the issues discussed at this meeting, much of the Trump administration’s agenda and behavior are deeply disturbing. Efforts such as banning people from predominantly Muslim nations from entering our country and pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change are completely inconsistent with my values and those of our movement, which was inspired by the idea that all Americans should be served equally with dignity.

But the topics the council will address matter. The council is tackling issues such as procurement reform, cloud computing and user-centered design — issues that are so far in the weeds and often so boring to most people that they rarely receive any attention, but that connect directly to the government’s ability to function in service of the American people. If this council succeeds, it could make a positive difference in the lives of tens of millions of citizens. But it can succeed only if the discussion of modernizing government puts the fundamental premise of our movement front and center: that government can work for the American people and by the American people — all the people. That’s why I’m going.

I am attending on behalf of the thousands of civil servants around this country who continue to improve government digital services to make sure they better serve every single American. I would not be attending this meeting if it were not dedicated to the issues that define Code for America and our mission. To the tech CEOs who are joining me in Washington, I ask that you speak up for the people for whom government works least now. Join me in making the digital services agenda about serving all Americans equally with dignity.

This agenda has never been more important. As budgets are slashed and critical programs come under financial and political pressure, giving governments the tools to do more with less can have an immense positive effect on those Americans who rely on these programs. It will not make up for the cuts, but it will allow these programs to do the most good they can under the circumstances.

There is no reason government services for everyone can’t be as good as the best services Americans use on their mobile phones, and far easier and cheaper to administer than they are today. The key is a set of practices that are relatively common in the consumer technology world, and not difficult to implement, except when held back by outdated law, policy, regulation and legacy government culture. An attempt to modernize government deserves our attention as well as our scrutiny. The attempts made by the council appear to build on what we at Code for America, our federal government colleagues and thousands of change agents nationwide have learned in the past six years.

The council includes the heads of the U.S. Digital Service and the Technology Transformation Service, two offices that fight for the adoption of a user-centered, iterative, data-driven approach to serving Americans. The men and women who staff them — many of whom came into government from careers in consumer tech during the Obama administration — are now part of a tradition of public service that their career government colleagues know well: serving the American public with patriotism and courage, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Politics isn’t government, and governing isn’t someone else’s problem. It’s ours. The movement we started at Code for America and which continues across government is fundamentally about reclaiming government as a massive, powerful force for good, and we must take every opportunity to shape it. We must show up and speak up for our principles, and for the ways we’ve learned to put those principles into practice.