How to tell if the Trump administration is serious about tech innovation

Forget last week’s high-profile meeting with tech leaders, the real indicator of Trump’s tech intentions lies in the fate of two key government agencies

Last week’s tech news cycle was dominated by coverage of the high-profile meeting between the incoming Trump administration and a star-studded roster of tech leaders. Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Alphabet’s (Google)’s Larry Page, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Oracle’s Safra Catz,, IBM’s Ginny Rommety and others were summoned to Trump Tower for a heavily hyped sitdown that provided some amazing optics. (Who can forget the meme of Bezos, Page, and Sandberg looking incredibly glum at the table?) 

But that’s really all it was, optics. While reports indicated that Trump was non-specifically positive about the tech industry (promising “I’m here to help” and “I’m on your side,” for example), there’s no way to pin specific actions to that meeting.

Whither 18F and the United States Digital Service? 

Instead, if you really want to know whether the Trump administration is serious about promoting technology innovation, in government and the private sector, track the fate of two key government agencies: the United States Digital Service (USDS) and 18F. 

The USDS is a White House agency created out of the SWAT team originally brought in to fix Healthcare.gov. The group, composed of experienced private sector leaders and engineers, is doing great work bringing the skills and ethos of Silicon Valley to government IT.

+ Also in Network World: How the U.S. Digital Service is transforming government IT +

18F, meanwhile, is an office in the General Services Administration, with the charge of using lean startup techniques to “help agencies improve processes and deliver efficient, easy-to-use digital services to the public.”

Both agencies were created during the Obama administration, and both have been widely praised for cutting through red tape and leveraging modern agile approaches to solve long-standing problems and get things done fast.

Politics vs. practicality? 

Whether politics or practicality turns out to be more important to the Trump administration will go a long way toward revealing whether Trump will really be a friend of the tech industry.

If Trump focuses on the practical results achieved by 18F and the USDS and maintains or even expands their operations, that’s a really good sign that the value of technology and the technology is being recognized. But if the Obama connection is seen as paramount and the agencies are shuttered or hobbled, then the antipathy between Trump and the tech industry that surfaced during the campaign is more likely to continue to dominate policy decisions.

Canary in the coal mine

So far, Trump’s transition team hasn’t directly addressed the two operations, but one prominent think-tank has already recommended the closure of the two agencies and then backtracked and said the recommendation was in error.  That kind of confusion isn’t uncommon during Presidential transitions, and it will likely take some time before the new administration’s tech policies become clear. As the various issues play out, however, the fates of 18F and the USDS will be a canary in the coal mine, signaling their ultimate direction.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.