President Trump’s victory caught Garrett Johnson—and the rest of humanity—by surprise. A Republican, Johnson had never been among Trump’s biggest fans. He’d worked for former Florida governor Jeb Bush and supported Bush in the primaries. The night candidate Trump addressed the Republican National Convention, Johnson retweeted the words of another Republican political operative: “There will be time for reflection. Hopefully there will be time to rebuild. But now it’s simply time to be ashamed.”
After the election, though, Johnson believed he had a responsibility. As cofounder of the advocacy group Lincoln Network, Johnson and partners Aaron Ginn and Chris Abrams had spent years cultivating a network of politically conservative tech talent. Now those people wanted to know how they could best serve the new administration.
So Lincoln Network compiled a list of 165 available government tech jobs, as well as a database of hundreds of people who were willing and able to do them. It also organized a webinar with former Obama administration tech staffers. “They were unhappy about the outcome of the election,” Johnson says of the Obama aides, “but were strongly encouraging tech people to apply for jobs and try to get into the administration, irrespective of the politics of the White House.”
And then, nothing. The president imposed a temporary government hiring freeze, which Johnson says crushed any momentum within his network. Members grew disillusioned by headlines about the chaos and carnage within the new administration. “People moved on with their lives,” Johnson says. “Of course the constant outrage and hysteria around decisions or proclamations or tweets coming out of the White House is going to impact hiring.”
The result: The administration’s tech team remains largely vacant. The Office of Science and Technology employs just 40 people, down from roughly 130 under President Obama. The president has yet to nominate a head for the office, or a chief technology officer. Michael Kratsios, former chief of staff to venture investor and Trump backer Peter Thiel, is deputy CTO.
“Things have been moving slowly … shockingly slowly,” a White House staffer says of the nomination process. “They hope to have a nominee within the next month or two for the Senate to confirm, but I’ve heard that for a few months now.”
At 18F, a tech-consulting group for government agencies inside the General Services Administration, two to three staffers per month have departed since the election. Before the election, the department was adding roughly two employees a month, peaking at a little more than 200 employees overall. “The swing there is about five employees per month, which after a few months you notice real quickly,” one former 18F engineer says.
The Obama administration won rare bipartisan praise for bringing more technologists into government. It created the US Digital Service to improve delivery of government services; the agency helped save the troubled healthcare.gov website and digitized services such as veterans’ health records and the immigration review process. Now some fear such gains will be erased.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has promised to continue Obama’s legacy of modernizing government with technology. During the White House’s so-called Tech Week in June, Kushner convened tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and called for an end to the archaic systems that still run so much of the government. “The Department of Defense, for example, still uses 8-inch floppy discs in some of its legacy systems,” Kushner noted in his address. The president’s son-in-law also opened the new Office of American Innovation, focused on modernizing government through tech.
White House aides say the differing organizational charts don’t signify any scaling back of efforts to enhance government services with tech. “It is natural that different administrations have different approaches to the role of different entities within the administration,” says one staffer involved in technology initiatives.
Still, the delays are giving technologists time to consider whether to align themselves with a tumultuous administration, particularly when many tech companies and employees have cast themselves as adversaries.
“I’m not willing to have my name publicly associated with the White House,” says one Silicon Valley engineer who recently discussed job possibilities with the administration. “I don’t think I’d be forgiven by some people. Career-wise I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”
“There’s a concern of being labeled and a concern about backlash,” says Jonathan Dietz, former deputy chief technology officer at the Republican National Committee, who runs a tech consulting firm in San Francisco and has considered working for the White House. “I don’t think it’s career suicide, but there is a concern.” Dietz says he would still strongly consider an offer to work in the administration. “It’s a unique opportunity no matter who’s in the administration to try and be able to shape policy at such a high level,” he says.
Some Obama-era recruits who stayed through the new administration have recently made noisy exits. One former 18F employee, Noah Kunin, penned a Medium essay in early August explaining that he didn’t want to participate in “normalizing” Trump’s administration.
The administration suffered another setback last week, when the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum, which included IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, among others, disbanded following Trump’s controversial remarks about violence following a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Other marquee-name tech leaders, including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Uber founder Travis Kalanick, departed the advisory council months before.
Johnson, the Lincoln Network founder, worries that the personnel shortages will hurt the administration’s tech efforts. Some people who worked on these projects under both administrations say the effects are already apparent. The former 18F engineer says that in the first half of this year, the agency’s “engineering, design, research, and product management capacity definitely declined.”
Whether it’s for fear of stigma or simply a lack of demand from the government, Johnson says Lincoln Network is fielding far fewer requests from people interested in working for the Trump administration. Now he and cofounder Ginn are launching a new consulting group called Lincoln Deployed, which will recruit politically conservative technologists to work on projects for political nonprofits and local campaigns. “We think the Deployed model is important regardless,” Johnson says, “but especially in the event technologists no longer see USDS and 18F as compelling options.”