An impassioned debate is raging among the hundreds of software engineers, designers and other techies who left Democratic-leaning Silicon Valley and other tech enclaves to work for President Barack Obama: whether to stay in Washington under Donald Trump.
While some high-ranking tech staffers in the federal ranks say they’re not going anywhere, others worry that staying could put them in a tough spot, especially if the new administration asks them to work on projects at odds with their values.
It’s “a brutal line for some of us to walk,” said one senior tech specialist in the federal government, who would only speak without being named. The specialist said staffers are caught between “serving the public in ways that are obviously still very much needed,” versus “serving a person — and a ‘regime’ — who, for some of us, is fundamentally disrespectful of our existence.”
“The arguments are really clear,” says Anil Dash, a New York City entrepreneur whose commentary is widely followed in the tech industry. “The one side is, ‘You came to serve and there’s still a need.’ The other is, ‘Do we legitimize this administration?'”
Dash says he has stopped recommending that people in tech join the U.S. Digital Service, but that he also sees little upside to those already on the federal payroll leaving now.
People open to staying include Rob Cook, a former Pixar executive who just three weeks ago began a three-year appointment as the head of the Technology Transformation Service, a branch of the General Services Administration created this summer to reinvent how the federal government buys and builds technology. “If it’s important, it’s important for all administrations,” Cook says.
Cook’s view that civil servants serve regardless of who occupies the Oval Office has its adherents. But among the rank and file in the federal tech service, conversations are swirling. They’re weighing whether those who joined the Obama administration to apply the thinking of the so-called civic tech movement — the idea that modern digital tools can create a government more responsive to citizens — would be guilty of aiding a president whose policies and politics many of them utterly oppose.
Obama created the Digital Service as what he called a tech “SWAT team” after being burned by the failed launch of HealthCare.gov. He has tapped that team of technology experts to execute some of his policy priorities, such as making it easier for would-be immigrants to the U.S. to track their applications online.
If workers were asked “to build the ‘database of Muslims,’ they’d probably leave en masse,” the tech specialist said. “But there’s also some more generalized angst about serving someone who disdains swaths of the public that include us.”
The official describes talking with one colleague “who’s Jewish and is outraged that [incoming White House chief of strategist Steve] Bannon will be steps from the Oval [Office] and frightened by all the anti-Semitism that’s been swirling since the campaign.”
Those post-election conversations among colleagues have been “mixed and pained,” the official said.
But other tech staffers say they have a job to do.”I’m a career civil servant,” says Dave Zvenyach, the acting executive director of 18F, a team of more than 180 technology specialists inside GSA that Obama created in 2014 to bring a Silicon Valley-style creative approach to government tech.
That’s a line of thinking also advocated by Jennifer Pahlka, the co-lead on Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s tech policy network and the executive director of the group Code for America. As deputy U.S. chief technology officer, she helped create the Digital Service, now home to about 200 federal employees.
“Today, public servants at all levels of government all over the country got up and went to work,” Pahlka blogged on Nov. 9. “They’ve done this the day after every election, whether they agreed with the outcome or not.”
But Catherine Bracy, who ran the 2012 Obama campaign’s technology-focused San Francisco office and now heads the group TechEquity, sees danger in the belief among some of her peers that technology is politically neutral.
“It’s different being [a] lawyer in USDA” who’s trained in legal norms, said Bracy, “and being someone building tools that have the potential to make an authoritarian, totalitarian, fascist administration more efficient. We in the civic tech movement have to be careful about how that power gets deployed.”
For many tech workers who joined the administration in the Obama era, Dash said, part of the appeal was working with one another, including recruits from world-class tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. That dynamic suggests that a high rate of attrition could trigger a mass exodus.
And the spots left open could be difficult to fill during the Trump administration, given the heavy skewing to the political left by the tech industry and its especially vocal election-season opposition to Trump. And that, say observers, could trigger a death spiral for places like the Digital Service and 18F.
Dash said many of his contacts in government technology ranks says they haven’t yet made up their minds about staying. Many are already thinking through the possibility of working day-to-day in the Trump administration while finding avenues to oppose him politically in their personal time, he said.
Many people seem content to wait. It’s up to incoming Trump administration leaders to win the support of technology specialists inside the Digital Service and 18F, Dan Tangherlini, who served as GSA administrator during Obama’s second term, wrote last week. He advises his former colleagues who are thinking about resigning to “see what happens.”
One major unknown is whether Trump will even be interested in keeping offices like the Digital Service and 18F and running.
He hasn’t spoken on the topic, though on Tuesday he appointed a landing team made up of a Republican Senate staffer and a former director of the Office of Personnel Management to pave the way for taking over the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — which houses the Digital Service — as well as a former GSA official to oversee the handover of that agency.
Some senior tech officials in the federal service are political appointees who are out of a job on Inauguration Day and don’t have to ponder too long about their decisions. It is up to the president-elect to opt to keep or replace them, and usually political appointees are shown the door.
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, a former Google executive whose post was created by Obama when he came into office, said at a POLITICO event last week that she’d be “open” to staying, given the need for tech-savvy voices at the highest levels of the federal government.
U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott has said he, too, would entertain the possibility if asked. “If you care about our country, how government works, [and] the credibility of our institutions, you’ve got to stay engaged,” Scott said at the same event.
Some who served in tech roles in the Obama administration say their Trump-opposed peers would be wise to appreciate that the best way of shaping his policies might be by staying put in the bowels of federal agencies, where the long arm of the Oval Office traditionally hasn’t always reached.
“If your job continues to exist, someone is going to do it,” says Matt Burton, the deputy and later acting chief information officer of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for four years, starting with its creation in 2010. “And if you’re the person in that role, you might have far more power than you might think. If you’re asked to perform work that is going to hurt people, quit then.”
Besides, says Burton, “presidents come and go, but bureaucrats can last forever.”
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