How the presidents American Tech Council should tackle reforming government tech

One of the most common problems that arise at startups is the development of what I calltechnical indebtednesa predicament created when second-rate code or software is deployed in the short run to speed up the product development process.

The intention is to fix or replace the short-term code afterwards, but what often happens is that the tech indebtednes grows when the short-term code is never upgraded or fixed, and sometimes convoluted skyscrapers of code are built on kludgy foundations. One well-known example is MySpace, which for many years fought with a snarled Millennial Tower of legacy code built on top of a poorly designed architectural foundation.

Like Silicon Valley startups, the Federal Government grapples with technical debt but on a massive scale. Look at theU.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which is spending 75% of its technology budget to maintain outdated legacy software systems, or the FAAs air traffic control, which is still actively utilizing the paper flight advance strips to track airliners. The Air Force nuclear ICBM missile launch process runs on floppy discs.

On Monday, the Trump Administration will host the newly created American Technology Council( ATC) in Washington DC. The aim of different groups is to transform and modernize the federal government, and the committee is also reflects President Trumps oft-stated passion on the campaign trail to run government more like a business. The council is composed of high-level Trump administration officials( including Jared Kushner and V.P. Mike Pence ), and yet-to-be-named Silicon Valley executives.

( Photo by Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)

They will discuss five major topics: how Washington can better procure technology; adaptation of private technology to government problems; tech workforce improvement; an exchange program to bring more engineers into the government; and finally, H1B visas.

Having served as a senior policeman in all federal departments( in both the Bush and Obama Administrations ), and after running privately as a venture capital investor, try to act as a Silicon Valley-to-DC translator and bureaucracy hacker.

As I see it, the two most challenging initiatives are: 1) deploying innovative technology to solve long-standing government problems and 2) solving the procurement problem. These two initiatives are inextricably connected; you can only deploy the new technologies if you can procure them.

To relating to the Federal tech debt, here are four bureaucracy hacking best practices that the Administration and its new advisors might consider for the Tech Council meeting:

  • Streamline the Procurement Process: Unlike the process of building a business, our governments procurement process is cumbersome because our republic involves treating all opportunities with a level of fairness, equal opportunity, and transparency. Industries can often forego these in favor of efficiency, and in Silicon Valley, there are few constraints( which also contributes to the Valleys well-documented age and gender discrimination ). That said, there is no question that the government has construed these standards in ways that induce the process opaque, overly complex, time-consuming, and difficult for anyone but Beltway incumbents to access. To rectify these issues, procurement process reform is needed to swing the balance on the government pendulum back towards greater efficiency.
  • Know Your Customer : Valley executives are well-aware that if you want to disrupt a traditional mode of operations, you have to know your customer. But enforcing changes from on high without knowing your clients needs, mode of operation, and cultural activities wont mobilize civil servants in the Federal bureaucracy. Palantir is one company that mastered this Know Your Customer approach when working with the Federal Government. When Palantir was a little startup with great technology, they expended time in D.C. figuring out the data analytics needs of the intelligence community, training them on Palantirs abilities, and engaging the relevant stakeholders, including operations folks in the bureaucracy, senior officials, and elected representatives. They promptly became experts on how the government does business, and the rest is history: contracting vehicles have become more flexible for easier adoption of innovative technologies, the government now actively appears outside its walls for solutions, and Palantir is a multi-billion dollar company.
  • Bring the Right Stakeholders to the Table: Since the listing of tech executives who will be meeting with the Tech Council hasnt been released yet, Id like to add my two cents as to who should be in attendance- specifically, executives who understand the governmental forces as a client and have demonstrated that they capable of tackle and transforming government culture to enforce change. While C-suite executives from the big tech firms will likely be at the meeting( Google, Apple, Facebook, etc .), it would be helpful if more technically-inclined executives were invited. Take for example, Bill Vass, the VP of Engineering at Amazon Web Services, who has overseen the deployment of Amazons GovCloud and has past experience as a CIO and CTO across the Department of Defense and Armed Services. Or Susie Adams, CTO of Microsofts Federal Government business unit, running across the Defense, Intelligence, and Civilian Agencies. Execs from Accenture, Booz-Allen, Deloitte, and Palantir should be there also, because all of these companies have deep experience deploying new technologies and services into the Federal Government bureaucracy. They have real knowledge of the technology problems in the government( info not often shared with the private sector ), know how the government operates, and have proven capable of implementing change.
  • Hire an Execution Team : Ideas are nice, but change is better. And change only happens if you execute on those ideas. As of last week, Trump had yet to nominate or fill many hundreds of federal undertakings, including nearly 1, 200 postures that require Senate confirmation. Without a team of executors in place, even the best policy or operational changes will stall. Having admitted that he is unfamiliar with the oddities of the federal bureaucracy, it would be wise for Trump to engage people with proven track records in the space. And fast!
  • Mobilize and Respect the Civil Maid : Even the best products can fail when rank-and-file stakeholders arent shown respect and properly incentivized to use them, and since government does not have the same motivational carrots and sticks at its disposal as business do, the Trump Administration needs to learn how to steer and motivate the bureaucracy. Anyone who has ever scratched a government employee the wrong way knows that, if they so choose, they can make anything impossible. Transformational leadership requires not just the imposition of new rules and initiatives, but also the mobilisation of the crowd. This should be a promising sign for Trump. Many would say that he won the election because he was a better master at reading and motivating the crowd. His ability to motivate the governmental forces mob to address technological debt is likely to be the greatest test of those skills yet.

Lets hope President Trump succeeds in deploying these 5 hacking techniques, because the stakes are high. Our veterans are suffering as they wait for the coordination of medical care, our critical infrastructure is at risk of devastating cyber assaults as we delay upgrading our technological infrastructure, and our ICBM nuclear missile systems error-prone outdated technology is an existential menace to us all.

For a country at the forefront of technology innovation, our government has too much technological debt and needs to keep pace with private sector advancements. The idea that Washington should learn a few things from the world of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship is not new. The problem “re not in the” thesis, but in its execution.

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