Jan 21 2021

Here’s What to Expect from the New Administration in Technology Policy

From a campaign conducted via Zoom and with a largely remote White House staff, President Joe Biden begins his term in an era more dependent on tech than ever.

As they prepared for their new roles in the White House, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had access to the most necessary piece of technology in government today: a solid videoconferencing tool that let them hold virtual meetings with civil rights leaders, interview potential Cabinet officials and take questions from reporters.

The telework-oriented world created by COVID-19 will no doubt shape Biden’s technology policies. The switch to remote work exacerbated existing weaknesses in legacy IT and forced agencies to move faster than expected to modernize.

READ MORE: Find out what existing technology policies will probably transition into the Biden administration.

In addition, many new White House staffers are expected to work the way their counterparts in federal agencies already do: at home. 

“It’s a transition like no other,” says Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice and federal CIO during the George W. Bush administration. “This will be the first time where the majority of people are going to be remote for their briefings. They’re going to be shipped equipment. It’s going to be really interesting to see.”

New Tech Policies Often Build on Existing Foundations

The outgoing administration left a blueprint to follow on tech modernization. Initiatives ranging from Cloud Smart to Artificial Intelligence for the American People underpin the work already being done by agencies to upgrade their IT environments.

Biden transition officials gave one clue early on as to where the administration stands on technology by establishing an agency review team focused solely on the U.S. Digital Service, a small, 6-year-old agency that focuses on assisting agencies in the modernization process. (The transition team also showed a little tech savvy by using the source code on the transition website as a recruiting tool; similar source code is in the new White House website as well).

In the days before the inauguration, the transition team also released its COVID-19 plan, which included calls for additional funding to boost federal IT modernization and cybersecurity protections in “the most ambitious effort ever to modernize and secure federal IT and networks.”

Among the funding proposals:

  • A massive expansion of the Technology Modernization Fund, now at $25 million; Biden is asking for $9 billion to pay for both standard modernization projects as well as shared service projects being ramped up by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the General Services Administration
  • $200 million to hire hundreds of IT experts to support the federal CIO and the U.S. Digital Service
  • $300 million in funding for GSA’s Technology Transformation Services
  • An additional $690 million for CISA to improve cybersecurity in federal civilian networks

“The recent cybersecurity breaches of federal government data systems underscore the importance and urgency of strengthening U.S. cybersecurity capabilities,” the transition team wrote in a press release.
 
Hiring a good team to handle all of this will be an important first step. “The first milestone is finding the right balance of people who are visionary and people who know the way our government works and are able to advance an effective agenda,” says Gordon Bitko, senior vice president of policy for the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents well-known tech companies and government contracting firms.

This will be a priority, as seven top agency CIOs will be leaving their posts — among them, the federal CIO as well as those for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. However, many of the top technology positions in government are held by career government employees who generally stay on after an administration change.

“Wanting government to work better, more effectively and with better technology and access to the American people is something that administrations have agreed on in the past, and they have a lot of continuity between them,” says Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, home to the Center for Presidential Transition. “I think the Biden administration, given their interest, is really well poised to pick up on the good initiatives.”

Shorter Transition Period May Slow Down IT Efforts

Dell CTO Ann Dunkin and former Environmental Protection Agency CTO Greg Godbout, both on Biden’s transition team, write in transition recommendations published in November that GSA should be elevated to Cabinet level and its director essentially made the government’s COO.

This, they write, “would ensure that management and implementation best practices go hand in hand with policy development, dramatically reducing the delivery failures that put even strong policy agendas at risk.”

That kind of reform is important but takes time. “What’s absolutely necessary for an incoming CIO is to understand what’s going on at ground level in terms of technology within your agency,” says Tim Young, a principal with Deloitte Consulting who served as deputy federal CIO during the George W. Bush administration.

“The best technology reforms are designed with deep input from career executives, the private sector and the nonprofit sector,” he adds. “When that happens and you get bold ideas, you can actually have a technology reform agenda that spans from agenda to results.”

The shortened transition period and congressional chaos after Jan. 6 may slow down both hiring and policy development. Confirmation hearings for five of Biden’s Cabinet choices began on Jan. 19; only one had been confirmed as of Jan. 21.

“Even more important than that is who’s in the next layer down, because that’s where the day-to-day work gets done,” says David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. 

Biden must appoint about 4,000 people to fill the political and noncareer government slots in government, some of which were left vacant by the previous administration. “The career workforce capacity is diminished from previous transitions,” Berteau says. “The cushion inside the agencies is thinner.”

The new administration has already filled two White House jobs neglected by its predecessor: the first deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology and a homeland security adviser. Biden will also appoint the first national cyber director, a newly created Cabinet-level official who will coordinate cybersecurity efforts across government.

“Among the priorities that they’ve mentioned, whether it be COVID-19, the economy, climate or otherwise, all of those things have technology underwriting them as a foundation,” says Schulman. “So, even when it’s not explicitly stated, it’s still definitely a priority.”

LEARN MORE: Read a Q&A with presidential transition expert Loren DeJonge Schulman. 

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