Tech industry leaders from companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google headed to the White House Monday to brainstorm on how to improve the government’s creaky IT systems — aiming to find common ground with the Trump administration after weeks of tension over climate change, immigration and other policies.
The official focus of the meeting has non-partisan appeal: upgrading federal systems that one senior White House official described as "in some cases 10 to 20 years out of date." And the tech giants could stand to benefit if the government moves to modernize with the help of their hardware, software and cloud-computing services.
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But the gathering comes at a low point in the tumultuous relationship between President Donald Trump and Silicon Valley, with many in the tech world deeply disturbed by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Activist groups have been urging Silicon Valley’s tech workforce to press their CEOs to disengage from Trump.
Monday’s session is the first official meeting of the American Technology Council, created by the president in May under the auspices of the White House Office of American Innovation led by Trump son-in-law and senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner. The idea behind the council is to bring the government’s IT infrastructure, websites and apps to the same level of excellence associated with the country’s leading tech companies.
To that end, executives will spend hours brainstorming on topics like the use of artificial intelligence to reduce fraud and the potential for cloud computing to lower the cost of providing government services, before sitting down for a debrief with Trump.
"We have challenged ourselves to pursue change that will provide utility to Americans far beyond our tenure here," Kushner said in a rare public speech at the start of the meeting. "Together, we have set ambitious goals and empowered interagency teams to tackle our objectives. It’s working, and it’s very exciting."
Kushner said the U.S. government collectively operates 6,100 data centers that can be consolidated and shifted to the cloud — "something a lot of you know a lot about," he told the assembled executives — and bemoaned the state of aging federal systems, noting that the Defense Department "still uses eight-inch floppy disks on some of its legacy systems." He also talked about how the government requires a six-month review process to approve any changes to a federal website, and said many of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ forms aren’t accessible by modern browsers.
Those attending including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Also on the list are Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Qualcomm CEO Steven Mollenkopf, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and Palantir CEO Alex Karp. They will be joined by Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor and Trump adviser, and John Doerr of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Notably absent from Monday’s meeting is Facebook. The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, had joined other tech executives in a December, post-election meeting with Trump in New York, but the social network said Monday its executives had longstanding scheduling conflicts.
Cisco had earlier told POLITICO that its CEO, Chuck Robbins, would be participating in the event, but after his name was missing from the White House list, a spokeswoman explained that "Chuck is no longer able to attend due to a [scheduling] conflict."
The tech leaders were given a detailed briefing memo to prepare for Monday’s sessions, complete with questions to contemplate in advance, such as, "How have you created a culture of user- or service-first?" and "What lessons have you learned in modernizing legacy systems?" They were also asked by the White House to bring a "plus-one" from their companies with expertise on the topics to be addressed during the day’s meetings.
If the government gets better at buying modern technology, the companies could bolster their position in a lucrative federal market. Google, for example, is already an email service provider for some federal agencies, and the White House itself, under President Barack Obama, explored using Facebook to communicate with citizens.
Still, the gathering exacerbates a tension that has existed for tech industry leaders since Trump was elected. They are caught between the desire to stay engaged with the Trump administration on issues that matter to their bottom line and the risk of a backlash from their liberal-leaning West coast tech workers as well as customers angered over Trump’s climate policy and his travel ban that sought to deny visas to citizens of six majority-Muslim countries.
Upgrading federal IT systems was a focus of the Obama White House, too, at least in the wake of the failure of the HealthCare.gov website in 2013. After that, President Obama created the U.S. Digital Service to attract tech sector experts to federal jobs revamping the government’s online services.
Trump White House officials argue that IT modernization efforts could help the government cut down on wasteful spending and curb fraud, potentially saving what they estimate as $1 trillion over the next 10 years. That finding echoes the conclusions of a report released this year by the Technology CEO Council, whose membership includes several of the executives slated to take part in the White House meeting Monday.