Technology in the Political World: Innovating in the Federal Government

 /  April 30, 2018, 2:15 p.m.


Gerrit Lansing served as the Chief Digital Officer of the Trump White House in early 2017 after spending two years as the Chief Digital Officer of the Republican National Committee. He invented a successful one-click donation app, Revv, in 2014. He currently works as a Senior Partner at the consulting firm IMGE, and is a Spring Quarter Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Lansing’s weekly IOP seminars meet from 3:30-5:00 PM on Mondays and will address a range of issues regarding political technology. This article is the second of a two-part series in conversation with Lansing. The first part may be found here.

Gate: Having worked in both the private and public sector of political technology, how do you see those two worlds operating differently?

Lansing: Government is full of all of these regulations and structures that are very well-intentioned. Government procurement is an excellent example. We obviously don’t want people in government to be able to give sweetheart deals or make money selling their brothers’ companies. There has to be a stringent procurement process. The problem with that is that it leads to agencies buying technology in a way that’s really old-fashioned because the system is old and cumbersome and only a few people want to compete for some of these contracts. And they end up buying things that they don’t need, and by the time they get delivered, they’re over-budget and the feature set doesn’t even work anymore because the technology has changed. 

Versus the outside, the rise of agile development, which is just start and go and iterate and just get something in front of the customer and learn from it. How would the government do that? How would the government issue a new website or a new service. What if it didn’t work or was crappy? It becomes a political risk for the administration. The other side isn't gonna give them any leeway. They’ll say that the thing’s broken, it’s crap, and the administration will say, “no no! We’re innovating! We’re iterating! We’re doing agile development!” So it’s very difficult.

How do you take what the technology world does and bring it to government? I give the Obama administration a huge amount of credit for kicking the door open on being able to bring in some tech talent, and the Trump administration is really accelerating that effort. You’ve gotta have a higher tech intelligence at high levels of government so that infrastructure and other basic decisions that are made are made by people who really know what they’re doing. From what I can tell from my short experience at the White House, there do seem to be, and this is a politicized term but I think it’s accurate—it does seem to be a bit of a “deep state” of the CIO, Chief Information Officer, at all these agencies, that don’t really want any change. That’s really dangerous. I think that needs to be rooted out.

Gate: You see the problem as not necessarily the IT teams themselves, but as more of administrative and non-technical staff who are resistant to technology?

Lansing: Every agency has a CIO, and they have a team, and they buy tech from the same ten to twenty groups who viciously vie over these government contracts, and they do it in a non-agile development way. There isn’t enough tech IQ to see a better way and to implement a better way in all of these agencies.

What they’re doing right now is sending in small SWAT teams to fix this—there are two amazing organizations. One’s called the United States Digital Service and the other is called 18F, and they’re both full of very high-end tech talent. They go into agencies that really messed up, like Veterans’ Affairs. They are going in with a sign-off from the secretary, the very top, who is saying “go fix this issue.” I think that over the next few years we’re going to see some results where they fix this in a totally amazing way where it’s just as functional and amazing as your iPhone, but it’s a government service. I think you can then use that and sell that to all of the other agencies.

The Obama administration had told all of the agencies to “get on the cloud.” They called it “thou shalt go to the cloud.” But they went with different services. So imagine, now, if the entire government got together, all the different agencies, and said, “we’re gonna use one cloud, and I want a ninety percent discount because we’re a thirty-trillion-dollar organization.”

You’ve got all of these different agencies doing their own thing, and the CIO’s are playing a big role there. At the same time, that agency needs a service at the right time. I think people underestimate how big the federal government is. Ten of the biggest agencies in the government are probably on par with GDP’s of other countries, and those are just one little wing of the government. So the scale of the problem is absolutely enormous. What worries me is that there’s this breaking point—and I don’t really know what that is and what happens there—but I can envision something where the world literally comes to the palm of our hands with our phones now. A generation or two away and it’s still super broken and they don’t even consider the government a factor and maybe they wanna narrow it down or forget about it. That’s a problem. The lack of faith in institutions is a dangerous thing. If there’s nothing that really ties a society together, that breeds problems.

Gate: Can you speak more to your example of the Obama administration’s telling agencies “go to the cloud” but not providing a framework to do so?

Lansing: It’s an example of how difficult it is for the White House to get agencies to do what they want. There’s a lot of people who want to do it their own way, or they’re entrenched. The bureaucracy is a real thing. I was talking with David Axelrod last night, and he sometimes sounds like a small government conservative when he’s talking about it because it is tough to move it. It’s a big entity that’s super complicated.

Gate: Having spent time at both the RNC and in a Republican White House, what do you see in the future of the GOP as fractures within the party grow?

Lansing: That’s a great question. I honestly haven’t thought about it too much—so much has happened recently. I think both parties are going to become a little bit more of a brand, and whoever wins the nomination that presidential election cycle just kinda grabs onto that brand as a vehicle to get you somewhere.

A lot of that vehicle is built on technology and a large bank account, and there are enterprise-level services that the party can provide that the small, primary campaign can’t do on its own, but when someone wins the primary and accesses this platform, they kind of remake the party each time. I sorta see a future like that, where the issues could change, for whatever the nominee is.

I do think we’re in the middle of a very messy re-triangulation of what the parties are. I think in two or three cycles some Democrats will wake up and realize that they’re Republicans, and some Republicans will wake up and realize that they’re Democrats. That’s probably a good thing, and it’s super messy, and it’s even worse with social media added on top of it. It happened in the 50s and 60s with Dixie Democrats. It’s hard to say obviously if there’s been a big change in some of the fundamentals. The optics have changed a lot, obviously a great deal, but I think what you get out of Congress isn’t all that much different than like what George H. W. Bush would have pushed through.

Gate: But Trump is certainly different.

Lansing: Radically different. I think it’s a lot of optics, though. He’s very different optically, which has big benefits and certain drawbacks sometimes. I think that the substance of what he’s been pushing through legislatively hasn’t changed that much from previous Republican administrations.

Gate: Both parties seem to be at a bit of a standstill and don’t really know how to regulate the tech industry. Do you think that any reshuffling of the parties is going to happen not just because of social media and technology, but to manage the growing power of tech companies?

Lansing: That’s interesting. So, for example, Bernie and Trump see eye-to-eye on a fair amount of stuff. There’s this populism thing that’s on the rise that’s gonna be flamed up by this tech conversation. It’s just a classic David and Goliath thing, right? I think it plays right into their hands. That could be a future where there’s more of a populist party and an establishment party and people move to be in that other thing. I’m not sure this one issue has enough oomph to have someone say, “Oh my god I’m a Republican,” because I think right now there’s a lot of bipartisan anger about it, or certainly concern, which I think is great.

Gate: Maybe after all this, social media is now bridging the partisan aisle.

Lansing: That could be the biggest irony, that the divisions created by social media are now driving both sides to come together to fix it.

Elizabeth Crowdus


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