When a dozen and a half CEOs of the world’s biggest tech companies descended on the White House earlier this month, it turned a spotlight on one of the bigger mysteries of a mysterious White House: They were convened by the Office of American Innovation, the new operation being run by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Announced with much fanfare by the president in March, the office was set up to bring “new thinking and real change” to the country’s toughest problems, according to Trump, in part by drawing on the lessons of the private sector.
Since then, observers have been wondering just what it was, or even if it was. It didn’t help that the sweep of its briefing was almost comically broad, from upgrading federal government’s $82 billion worth of IT, to spurring the creation of new jobs, changing how the country thinks about apprenticeships, and "unleashing American business." Not to mention working with sometimes-antagonist Chris Christie’s commission on tackling the United States’ opioid epidemic. (And all this while Kushner is also supposed to be tackling Middle Eastern peace.)
But over the past few weeks, its responsibilities have started to come into focus. It now has a staff, which worked behind the scenes to bring in the impressive roster of tech CEOs who attended the summit—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, IBM’s Ginni Rometty and more. It spurred the decision by the Veterans Administration to buy a multibillion dollar new computer system. And it had a hand in Trump’s executive order on apprenticeships, issued before the meeting.
Although ambitious-but-vague White House offices are nothing novel in Washington, there’s a lot riding on this one. Kushner’s office is intended as the White House’s main point of contact for the American tech industry, which has found itself with the unaccustomed worry of being shut out of the Washington conversation by a president more interested in old industries than Silicon Valley-fueled growth. If self-described innovators and Trump’s Washington are going to have a successful dance over the next four years, it may well depend on whether Kushner and his small team are the real deal, and not just some fancy-titled show office for a 36-year-old presidential relative.
“I view it as incredibly important,” says Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group for major digital-economy firms.
The White House Office of American Innovation is, by the admission of all involved, not particularly big. Its operational team consists of Kushner; Chris Liddell, a former chief financial officer of both Microsoft and General Motors; Reed Cordish, a former Baltimore real estate developer; and the recently added Matt Lira, a veteran Capitol Hill staffer. Liddell and Cornish share a West Wing office. Liddell has thus far focused mostly on the team’s federal I.T. modernization work, including the CEO summit. Cordish spends his time focused on workforce issues and upgrading the country’s physical infrastructure; according to White House officials, he’s helping to draft a major infrastructure bill that Trump is slated to propose this fall. (According to a salary list recently released by the White House, Kushner and Cordish are taking no salary, while Liddell opted for a salary of $30,000, the minimum required to get health insurance. Lira makes $115,000.) The office helped write the executive order on apprenticeships announced by Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta in mid-June, though it got second billing to the president’s daughter when it was announced: “I especially want to thank the work that’s been done by Ivanka Trump and the Office of American Innovation to develop the proposals that we’ll be talking about,” said Acosta.
The tech CEO gathering got the most headlines – and a great deal of personal attention from the office, with Liddell and Kushner writing the seating chart themselves, a senior White House official says. But perhaps the more potentially significant moment for WHOAI came when, standing behind the podium in the White House briefing room on a recent Monday afternoon, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin thanked what he called the "American Office of Innovation." (Even cabinet members are still learning its name.) The VA has been bedeviled by decades by IT problems both obscure and complex: its electronic health care records didn’t sync up with the Pentagon’s, meaning that millions of military members were potentially lost in the gap has they moved between two different government-run healthcare systems. It’s a flaw that can leave new veterans without help right when they’re likely to need it the most. Shulkin, a medical doctor and health care executive, explained that when he first sat down with Kushner, he was asked what it would take for the VA to make a "quantum leap."
After consulting with Kushner’s team, said Shulkin, the VA would be ditching its decades–old electronic records system and adopting one just like the DoD has—without going through all the contracting rigamarole that often accompanies major federal tech projects. Past leaders of the VA and allies in the White House have struggled to patch together incompatible systems. The route Shulkin was taking was of tossing the whole thing out and starting over.
On a recent call with reporters, senior White House officials explained what happened behind the scenes once Shulkin flagged the medical-record issue. “What we did is, we called the DoD, Secretary Mattis, and said, ‘Look, this is a problem. Send us your top five people on this issue," said one White House official. "They came back with something. We didn’t think it was perfect, didn’t work. We worked through it." In short, said the official, "We understood all the barriers, but these problems, we don’t let them hide."
In his pre-White House life, Kushner had some degree of success with attempting similar reinventions. Notably, he’s credited with successfully overhauling the Trump campaign’s theretofore wobbly data and digital operation. When discussing WHOAI’s remit, Kushner combines a nerd’s focus on process—he can talk about big data with the practiced ease of a Silicon Alley startup founder—with both a dash of glamour and the power, as the president’s son-in-law, to order people to do things. Mid-level executive branch staffers say he’s gotten good at the inside game: his team convenes a Friday open-call meeting on ongoing projects in a West Wing conference room with a few dozen of the programmers and chief information officers and cybersecurity experts already on the federal payroll. In some ways, say White House officials, that’s the role: spot problems, figure out who’s already working on it, and identify-then-provide whatever help they need to do a better job. It is, says those around WHOAI, what makes its portfolio something less than absurd. It’s not meant to be a one-stop-shop. It is more rightly thought of, says one senior White House official, as “the center of a wheel.”
Kushner’s record in the private sector is mixed, however. His ownership of the The New York Observer, acquired when he was just 25 years old, was most notable for a shift in the paper’s focus to an obsession with power and what former employees say was Kushner’s belief that the news business should be able to scale like a tech startup. A digital strategist who worked with Kushner on the newspaper told POLITICO, “He would compensate his lack of knowledge by saying stuff like, ‘Let’s just blow up the whole concept of digital.’ It would sort of sound interesting for a second and then you would just forget about it and get on with the work.”
And when it comes to dealing with the cultures of both government and technology, he has to overcome the friction caused by his boss and father-in-law, who has alienated both worlds. There are, for example, those who are eager to help out in reimagining government, and they’re encouraged by a White House seems to be serious about it. But does it have to be this White House? Jennifer Pahlka was a deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House, in 2013 and 2014. Before and after, she’s run Code for America, a San Francisco non-profit predicated on the very ideas Kushner’s championing. WHOAI invited her to the late June CEO summit. She went, but not before firing off an email to her staff justifying her presence there. "This is not a decision I have made lightly,” wrote Pahlka, “the administration has shown a frightening disregard for the principles and values of government, public service, and the rule of law.”
The response to Pahlka’s argument was largely positive. Tweeted D.J. Patil, the chief data officer of the United States in the Obama White House, “I agree w/ [Pahlka] on her choice We need to support the transformation of gov AND rights of all humans, climate change, + healthcare!”
In an interview, Pahlka said the meeting was a little stilted—the Silicon Valley executives spent too much of their time in the White House that afternoon "tech-splaining how to do things to people who actually how to do them pretty well," she said – but Trump’s willingness to cede the area to Kushner was clear. "He was sort of like, ‘Yeah, tech’s not really my thing—infrastructure, building bridges and roads, is my thing. But it’s Jared’s thing, and I trust him.’"
WILL IT WORK? Tech lobbyist Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, has been robustly critical of Trump on issues like climate and immigration, but feels encouraged by the administration’s emerging approach to tech, which he contrasts favorably with the Obama White House, whose science and tech policy shop was led by John Holdren, a well-credentialed environmental scientist.
"The work that our companies have been endeavoring to do has been hard to advance because no one has really had exclusive responsibility for it," says Garfield. "But now there’s an office centralizing all of it and carrying it forward. That’s why people think it’s important. And it’s no ding on Dr. Holdren. But his relationship with the president was different than Jared’s trust relationship with the president."
Garfield, who participated in a White House meeting on modernization with Liddell in mid-June, says, "the conversations thus far have been the opposite of superficial. They’ve been incredibly substantive—wonky and granular."
As long as Kushner can keep convincing agency secretaries and CEOs and civil servant to get together and talk, he has a shot at making progress on some of the most intractable issues that have long stymied Washington, from federal agency mainframes to well-maintained roads and bridges.
By design, the solutions they’re attempting are ones measured not in months, but years. It will likely take that long to know if, for example, what Shulkin is trying will do any good; the VA has some 1,200 facilities across the country, many using their own flavor of I.T. system. (Not to mention what it might mean for the rules governing federal procurement, meant to encourage competition and cut down on corruption.) And it’s yet to be seen what the office might do when it comes to job creation or opioids.
Besides, depending on how you’re counting, Kushner’s attempt to remake how the federal government works is something like the 13th or 14th attempt at it since William McKinley was president. And while Kushner has celebrated the idea that "the government should be run like a great American company," that, too, has been done. There was another right-hand-to-the-president who talked about creating "a businesslike government" using "lessons learned from America’s best companies." That was Vice President Al Gore, and the year was 1997. Kushner’s not even the first to try to throw at the problem the wisdom of Bezos. A Gore staff report from back then pledged that “government will be transformed like amazon.com transformed bookselling.”
Gore closely identified with his reinventing government push (REGO, he would joke, was "’GORE’ spelled sideways") and it had its successes, like injecting in the federal government that agencies should be measuring what works and what doesn’t. But it petered out a bit in the later Clinton years, amid all that administration’s scandals. And by the time Gore ran for the big job himself, his opponent, then Texas Governor George W. Bush, would say, "they haven’t reinvented the government bureaucracy. They have simply reshuffled it."
Ron Klain—Al Gore’s chief of staff, who worked closely with the vice president on his attempts at government modernization—says he’s curious what Kushner is up to when it comes to his government-centric work. But there are, he says, warning signs. "It cannot be a side project for Jared," says Klain. Inarguably, Kushner’s attention is at best divided. He’s also Trump’s point person on Middle East peace, and shortly after the White House’s CEO summit he was off to the region to seek solutions between the Israelis and Palestinians.
One challenge facing Kushner’s office is that even as the White House Office of American Innovation is based on the idea that, as one senior White House official put it, "a lot of people really want to see the government succeed," that’s perhaps not a universally held goal even within the Trump administration. As Klain has pointed out, Steve Bannon, the presidential strategist whose office is next floor to Kushner’s on the first floor of the White House, has talked about the "deconstruction of the administrative state." Throw into the mix all of the obstacles that have made reinventing government so challenging over the years, and it adds up to a system that has proven itself bigger than those who have tried tackling it before. And it may be bigger than just a technology fix.
"It’s interesting how much of the government’s technology problems aren’t technology issues. They’re management issues,” says Klain. “They’re procurement issues. They’re cultural issues. And they often flush to the surface around technology."