The White House plans to convene technology giants including Amazon.com, Google, Microsoft and IBM on Monday and urge them to make it easier for their workers to leave behind their big paychecks and snazzy office perks and do brief tours of duty in government.
For the Trump administration, the hope is that private companies might encourage employees to take leaves of absence to help modernize state and federal agencies — bringing a Silicon Valley sensibility to challenges like improving veterans' health care and combating cybersecurity threats.
“The country benefits when patriotic citizens with technical expertise choose to serve at the federal, state or local level,” said Christopher Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination.
Attracting new tech talent always has been tricky for the federal government, given the slow process of hiring, the sensitive nature of background checks and security clearances, and the reality that public service pays far less than companies such as Google. But President Trump personally faces an added challenge: an ever-widening cultural and political gap between his White House and the left-leaning Silicon Valley, which has opposed many of Trump’s policies.
Ahead of their gathering, though, White House officials stressed that they believed many tech workers are willing to “put politics aside” to work together on shared goals. “This event on Monday is not just about our efforts, it’s about our successor, and their successor after that,” added one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s thinking. “It’s good for the country in the long term for technology professionals to have civil service in their career at some point.”
For the federal government — where some agencies as recently as 2016 had been using floppy disks, one watchdog found — attracting Silicon Valley-style expertise long has proved vexing. The Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that studies government agencies, found in September that fewer than 3 percent of full-time federal IT professionals are under 30.
“You can certainly have people who are older who are technologically sophisticated,” said Max Stier, the group’s chief executive. “But the reality is, in the tech arena, that much of the innovation, and much of the awareness of what's possible, skews to a younger demographic.”
Under President Barack Obama, the White House spent years trying to reverse that trend. The botched rollout of Healthcare.gov led the administration to create two government organizations that help federal agencies buy and leverage technology, called 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Trump has preserved both of them, then created the Office of American Innovation, a government initiative that’s convening representatives from about 50 companies and some of their trade associations at the event Monday.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Google in the past have allowed their employees to do short stints with the federal government. Google, though, said it’s “examining its leave policies to determine how we can best support civic tours of duty,” a spokeswoman said.
IBM confirmed its attendance at the Monday gathering, and a spokesman said the company previously has placed its workers with such programs as the Peace Corps. Amazon and Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Creating such a pipeline, however, might not be easy. Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft are some of the U.S. government’s biggest vendors, with their computers, software and cloud computing, raising the potential for apparent conflicts of interest when workers are assisting federal agencies that do business with their employers. To that end, White House officials said they erected guardrails to ensure these workers don’t touch issues tied to their corporate employers.
An industry group representing tech giants such as Amazon and Google, which stands to benefit from a federal government staffed with more people who share its sensibilities, praised the White House for its push.
“It isn’t the norm yet that you have deep technical expertise spread across all the agencies,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council.