Rebooting American government
© Getty Images

As a former official in two separate Administrations, I can attest that White House conferences and summits are notorious for being substance-free. The president listens attentively, delivers scripted remarks, and distributes presidential memorabilia like cufflinks and keychains. The group adjourns for media interviews in front of the West Wing, and the world keeps humming along.

Let’s hope that Monday’s first meeting of the White House American Technology Council — a summit with some of the nation’s leading tech CEOs — quickly gets down to substance, because our future economic and political health will be affected by what this Council produces. 

ADVERTISEMENT
President Trump established the Council through a May 1, 2017 executive order, and he deserves credit for recognizing that “Americans deserve better digital services from their Government.” Our government’s use of information technology touches every citizen. We already know the problems: the troubled Affordable Care Act website rollout, the Veterans Administration backlog and bungled medical appointments, and the vulnerability of our national infrastructure to relentless hacking.

We can do better, and the American Technology Council is poised to make an important contribution — but only if it focuses on the ways that technology can boost our economy, upgrade our government, and secure our elections.

Most Americans realize that something is seriously wrong. While low unemployment, rising interest rates, and buoyant stock markets suggest recovery from the 2008 Great Recession, that recovery has been slow and lacks the vibrant economic growth usually seen in post-recession turnarounds. Economic growth hovering around 2 percent won’t solve our serious budget deficit and national debt problem, or stabilize growing entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Americans may not know it, but our national productivity peaked in the 1970s. Since then, we’ve been on a slow decline, while other nations have surpassed us in economic dynamism. We enjoyed a period of vigorous economic growth in the three decades after World War II — what the French call the “30 Glorious Years.” At issue is whether we can restore that vibrancy.

What characterized that era was a series of major national investments: Truman’s Marshall Plan helped rebuild Western Europe and ensure growing markets for American goods. Eisenhower championed an interstate highway system that enabled coast-to-coast transportation of people and goods. Kennedy’s vision for space exploration landed men on the moon in under a decade. Johnson increased spending on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that led to the creation of today’s internet.

Name another comparable infrastructure effort since the 1970s. You can’t. Instead, we’ve been eating our seed corn and running massive domestic and trade deficits that have turned us from being the world’s largest creditor into the world’s largest debtor. Is it just accidental that our productivity started declining once these types of investments stopped?

Nobel Laureate in Economics Edmund Phelps has observed that “[o]utput growth had fluctuated around 4 percent annually from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s — of which 3 percent was productivity growth and 1 percent employment growth.” I don’t believe in “secular stagnation” — the notion that we can no longer expect to grow like we did in the last century. If we pursue the right economic policies and use existing technology wisely, there is no reason why we can’t enjoy greater economic growth and a new national flourishing.

Let’s hope that the Trump Administration’s new American Technology Council takes a hard look at identifying the best ways to deploy modern technology to improve the state of our government and our economy. Here are three critical areas of focus:

First, the Council must recognize the areas where better use of technology can jump-start economic growth. From advanced manufacturing, to public-private retraining partnerships, to the backlogs at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, there are myriad missed opportunities for technology to support faster growth, increased entrepreneurship, and more broadly-shared prosperity.

Second, it should identify the ways technology can improve the political debate about the direction of our country. A data-driven approach can cut through our political dysfunction and incentivize better results from government. Advanced analytics, big data, and an accurate 2020 census can improve the effectiveness of our laws and drive better performance in our government agencies.

Third, it should use its members’ technology expertise to help ensure that our elections are safe, secure, and fully auditable. The 2016 election saw explosive claims of cyberattacksfraud, and miscounts. With today’s technology, there is no excuse for this predicament. We need to make sure that every legitimate vote is counted, and that the public’s trust in our elections is restored.

Last fall, Michael Porter released a Harvard Business School report on American competitiveness which found that our broken political system is the top obstacle to increased competitiveness and economic growth. Taken together, the proposals above will go a long way towards getting our country on the right track. The American Technology Council has a tall agenda. Here’s hoping to its — and America’s — success! 

Charles Kolb is President of DisruptDC. From 1990–1992, he served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the George H.W. Bush White House, and from 1997–2012, he was president of the business-led Committee for Economic Development.


 

The views of contributors are their own and not of The Hill.