Obama’s Final Bill Invites Silicon Valley Innovators Into Unelected Government Positions — Under the Trump Presidency
Last week, mere hours before Donald Trump’s Inauguration, President Barack Obama signed, while he was still President of the United States, one final bill into law. Again: this was Pres. Obama’s very last bill.
The bill, known rather obscurely as the TALENT Act of 2017, is a last-minute codification of an existing program called the “Presidential Innovation Fellows Program.” This program was initially created as an executive order under Obama, in 2012, to bring private industry innovators into government agencies.The hope of this now-extended bill, according to supporters, is to combine the best of Silicon Valley’s technology-savvy thinkers with the slower-moving professional bureaucracies of Washington.
Obama’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in his final briefing from the White House Press Room, told journalists that this program could solve “major problems” in the nation by “enabling exceptional individuals with proven track records to serve time-limited appointments in executive agencies.”
Critics, though, warn that this program’s precedent brings private-sector individuals who are not elected officials or career employees, and who may have conflicts of interest, into the heart of sensitive government agencies – with little outside and oversight and with little that is democratic about the selection process.
How do you get to be a White House Fellow? The Fellows are chosen by an administrator within the General Services Administration, who is appointed in turn by the President. This means that now Pres. Trump can handpick whom he wants to have as a White House Fellow — thus infusing private sector influence into the core of his administration.
The now-extended program gives entrepreneurs, executives and innovators six-month to two-year positions inside Federal agencies, which the bill does not mention by name. Critics object to this lack of public acocuntability and transparency.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Ca, and House Majority Whip, believes that the program will allow “engineers, designers, innovators and thinkers [to] upgrade our [government’s] use of tech,” as the conservative Washington Examiner reported.
Past Fellows have been distinguished. Critics note that they also come from industries that have major contracts with government, and that draw from what some call “the military-industrial complex” as well as simple tech companies.
These past Fellows include Dr. Amrita Basu, a leader in genome studies — who hailed from defense contractor Lockheed-Martin; Kyla Fullenwider, who used to be a “product strategy mentor” at Google, but is now serving in the heart as the Chief Innovation Officer at the US Census Bureau — a transition in careers that privacy advocates might be worried about (especially since her LinkedIn profile does not identify what her role was as a White House Fellow); and Olivier Kamanda, who is currently in the Program — and whose background includes private equity funding in emerging markets such as Africa, being CEO of “Ideal Impact”, a Civic Tech company that measures the emotional impact of news, and who also worked as Senior Advisor and Speechwriter to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. Some critics might want these potential private sector and political conflicts of interest better disclosed to the American people, and to understand more clearly exactly what role he plays under the White House Fellows Program now.
Some innovators have indeed left a positive mark on government. Past projects the program boasts of have included increasing the digital accessibility of healthcare information, Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which aimed to cure the world’s most pervasive illness, and the creation of NotAlone.gov, which is a resource for sexual assault survivors who live on college and university campuses.
Despite the program’s track record of what some call success and the positive reception from both sides of the aisle, the opportunity for abuse that comes with bringing members of the private sector into non-elected positions is still clear to critics. Many might say that merging the Census Bureau and a Google former employee, or bringing in private sector techies to handle sensitive health care data, is a blurring of important boundaries between government and private industry.
And the program’s disclosures are extremely general: as Kamanda’s LinkedIn summarizes it, there is pretty much zero detail about what these people actually do, for how long, with what conflict disclosures, and in which agencies:
“The Presidential Innovation Fellows program brings the principles, values, and practices of the innovation economy into government through the most effective agents of change we know: our people.The program pairs talented, diverse technologists and innovators with top civil-servants and change-makers working at the highest levels of the federal government to tackle some our nation’s biggest challenges. These teams of government experts and private-sector doers take a user-centric approach to issues at the intersection of people, processes, products, and policy to achieve lasting impact.”
Without Congressional confirmations these positions are far removed from the American people. And Congress has proven to be weak in serving as the only legal protection to prevent the use of political leanings in staffing, especially when the same party holds the White House as well as both legislative bodies, as it does now. The text of the bill itself even presupposes executive overreaching, as it explicitly states that projects made possible by the TALENT Act must be “consistent with the President’s goals.”
This program, however, does provide certain safeguards, including an advisory board. None the less, critics still worry that a new Presidential administration may change the direction of the program.
Will the 2017 class of fellows be as “bright” as their predecessors? Will the program be used as a way to funnel executives from the private sector into government jobs, without normal checks and balances? Is it worrying that after a Dec 2016 meeting between Pres. Trump and tech company leaders, in which President-Elect Trump announced “I’m Here to Help”, whatever was said behind closed doors led to major support from Silicon Valley? Will Congress provide the oversight necessary to maintain integrity and standards in the program? Or do you feel it is high time that a sluggish government bureaucracy welcomed private sector innovators?
Share your thoughts in the comment section, and weigh in on this issue by using the BillCam widget embedded above. Use the BillCam to vote up or down on the TALENT bill of 2017, to let your Representatives know how you feel, to tweet the bill sponsor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, or to reach out to your own Representative. Share the bill with your friends and with your neighbors on social media. Raise your voice!