Hurdles remain for Trump’s big tech push

Hurdles remain for Trump’s big tech push
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE signed an annual defense policy bill into law on Tuesday that includes a provision pushing agencies to upgrade their old technology.

The inclusion of the provision — the result of negotiations between Congress, Trump’s Office of American Innovation and industry — was a major win for members of Congress in both parties who have pushed for it since the Obama administration.

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Still, hurdles remain. For one, Congress will have to provide funding for the general modernization fund created by the provision.

Another obstacle is that the Trump administration has yet to find permanent replacements for a host of top information technology roles, which former officials say could hamper implementation.

“To go implement this, it will take all hands on deck,” said Tony Scott, who served as Obama’s federal chief information officer.

Information technology modernization is a major priority of the Office of American Innovation, which is run by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Chris Liddell, a former Microsoft executive.

Legislative efforts to modernize federal IT have gained steam in Congress following the high profile breach at the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, which officials blamed on their outdated systems.

Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdImpeachment hearings likely to get worse for Republicans The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats open televised impeachment hearings Here are the key players to watch at impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas) and Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenate Democrats unveil priorities for federal privacy bill Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number MORE (R-Kan.) led the charge in the House and Senate to pass legislation that would set up two streams of funding for agencies to purchase new technology to replace aging systems that are costly to maintain and unsecure.

Under their twin proposals, agencies could draw from a $500 million general modernization fund or from individual working capital funds replenished by money they save from transitioning to new technology.

The federal government spends an estimated $80 billion to $90 billion on information technology each year, the majority of which goes toward maintaining old systems.

With the stamp of approval from the White House, the measure, called the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act, was included in the finalized version of the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Trump signed into law Tuesday afternoon.

The Trump administration’s efforts on MGT are just one element of a push to move agencies to the cloud and invest in new technologies.

Despite the lingering aversion to Trump among Silicon Valley heavyweights, industry representatives have welcomed the administration’s work on the modernization initiatives, seeing a potential business opportunity.

Pam Walker of the Information Technology Industry Council, an IT industry trade group, said the level of engagement has been roughly on par with that of the Obama administration.

“Technology is a bipartisan issue. It’s not a partisan issue because technology helps the agencies meet their missions … and it helps governments become more efficient,” Walker said.

“It was a top priority for both administrations,” she said.

But some stakeholders acknowledge that implementing the administration’s long-term agenda for federal IT, including MGT, won’t be easy.

The defense policy bill authorizes nearly $700 billion in spending, but lawmakers have yet to pass a comprehensive budget for the fiscal year. Last week, Congress passed a short-term resolution to fund the government for two weeks and now is faced with a Dec. 22 deadline to hash out a funding agreement. MGT calls for $250 million for the general modernization fund in both 2018 and 2019.

“At the end of the day, success will depend on getting the appropriations,” said Tom Gann, vice president of government relations at McAfee. “Everyone needs to keep their eye on that ball. I’m confident the administration is going to make that a priority.”

“We think that there’s great potential to do innovation,” Gann said of MGT.

Hurd, however, is less concerned about the funding for the centralized modernization fund, calling the working capital funds the “real prize” of the legislation in a recent interview.

“Whether or not the entire $250 million gets appropriated or not, to me, I consider that to be a cherry on top, not the actual cake,” Hurd said.

Trump is also faced with a challenge that has plagued successive administrations: filling out technology and cybersecurity positions amid steep competition from the private sector for talent.

But nearly a year into the administration, top technology roles are without permanent occupants, including the federal chief information officer (CIO).

Liddell himself has acknowledged the slow pace of technology hires, saying in October he wished the administration would move faster.

“It’s not directly inside my control, but we have way too many open positions, including federal CIO … way too many acting CIOs,” he said during a technology summit in Washington.

Currently, officials serving in eight chief information officer positions across multiple federal agencies are doing so in an acting capacity. These are the same officials who will be responsible for implementing MGT and other administration tech policies.

Scott remarked that the vacancies in CIO positions “are a drag on making progress.”

“It’s a simple matter of just human culture. You’re in an acting role and you’re not the candidate for the permanent role — your job is really a temporary one. You’re not going to make big changes or bold moves,” Scott said. “What you see just as a matter of human behavior is most people in acting roles will just try to keep the lights on but not [do] anything dramatic.”

The tech industry remains optimistic, given the administration’s willingness to collaborate with the private sector.

The administration is expected to soon release a report on federal IT modernization, for which it has solicited public comment from industry since August.

“It’s a smart team that is focused on the right challenges. They have done a nice job, for example, on reaching out to industry on the topic of IT modernization … and the executive order on cyber,” Gann said.  “It’s a professional effort that is working some hard challenges every day.”