WASHINGTON: Top executives from Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Google and other Silicon Valley titans met with President Donald Trump on Monday as the White House kicked off an effort to improve the federal government’s digital services for everyday Americans.
From upgrading slow, outdated websites to streamlining how veterans receive their health benefits, the administration said it wanted to hear ideas from leaders including Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post), Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet. One notable absence was that of Facebook, which did not participate reportedly because of scheduling conflicts.
Monday’s gathering was the most closely watched assemblage of tech luminaries since Trump met with industry chief executives at Trump Tower in New York in December. Like the Obama administration, Trump’s White House has been looking for ways to use technology to streamline government and supercharge its features for citizens. With many of the companies in the room having pioneered data-driven business practices, the White House is hoping some of that expertise will rub off.
Trump met with execs at 5 p.m. after several hours of workshops on cybersecurity, cloud computing and the recruitment of talent from the private sector, according to the day’s prepared agenda. High-skilled immigration, a longtime priority for the industry, received special attention, as did drones, robots and the growing connectivity of everyday devices such as thermostats.
“Our goal is to lead a sweeping transformation of the federal government’s technology that will deliver dramatically better services for citizens,” Trump said as he opened the meeting. “We’re embracing big change, bold thinking, and outsider perspectives.”
The government could save as much as $1 trillion over 10 years by upgrading the government’s technology, according to senior administration officials. As part of that push, more than 6,000 federal data centers could be consolidated, Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, said in remarks Monday afternoon ahead of the meeting. Some of the government’s oldest technology systems, Kushner added, are 39 to 56 years old. The Pentagon has continued to use floppy disks – years after many consumers stopped – to manage its nuclear arsenal.
The tech execs touched on familiar themes during the public portion of the meeting, with Cook calling for making coding a mandatory part of the U.S. education system and Nadella focusing on the value of immigration. Others, including Oracle chief executive Safra Catz and Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel, praised Trump effusively. Bezos said it was “impossible to overstate” artificial intelligence and its future importance.
But while the substance of the day’s agenda may have been focused on wonky policy issues, some in the tech industry went into the meeting acutely aware of a tension that has become more pronounced since that early winter meeting. For months, Trump has been making decisions that cut against Silicon Valley’s business interests and challenge its largely progressive slant on social issues. His travel ban in late January affecting several Muslim-majority countries wound up preventing tech workers from entering the United States, while his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement deeply wounded tech leaders who view climate change as a major priority. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk decided to stop advising Trump over the issue.
According to the administration, Trump’s call on the Paris agreement hasn’t dampened the White House’s relationship with Silicon Valley, senior officials said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Monday’s closed-door session. But many in the tech industry appear to disagree, particularly rank-and-file employees who have called for strong public denunciations of the administration’s climate-change stance.
“I think a lot of people are discouraged, to say the least, by what we’ve seen,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of Tech: NYC, a group that represents New York-based tech firms. “In this political climate, the best hope for getting things done are the things that don’t make a lot of headlines.”
That may include some of the issues on Monday’s agenda, such as streamlining federal procurement policy and raising the profile of public-private partnerships. The White House also asked companies whether they would support more leaves of absence for engineers and other employees so they can join the government for temporary tours of duty there, much in the way Barack Obama brought in experts from Google to help fix HealthCare.gov.
Still, Silicon Valley’s wariness of the Trump administration prompted some in the industry to say that the day-long series of flashy CEO workshops was mostly for show – and no substitute for simply doing the work.
“The whole belief that you’re going to bring these high-level thinkers to a table for an hour or two and have them solve all these things is at the heart of what this administration’s problems are,” said one tech industry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the topic more freely. “As Trump has said, ‘Who knew health care could be so difficult?’ Well, who knew that cloud infrastructure could be so difficult? Who knew that Big Data could be so difficult? They’re all about the scalps in the room.”