Washington woos a hesitant Silicon Valley

Posted at 11:34 AM, May 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-20 16:24:37-04

On the surface, the federal government and Silicon Valley appear to have little in common. The former is slow, antiquated and hung-up on policy. The latter is streamlined, hip and makes money.

And the two have butted heads on many occasions on issues ranging from net neutrality to cybersecurity. But there appears to be an intensifying magnetic pull that’s tying them together.

Quite simply, the federal government needs Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley is realizing it needs Washington.

From the Pentagon to the White House, government agencies are clamoring to learn from the successes of the tech world, and that has led to Washington increasingly courting Silicon Valley geeks.

Just this spring, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security sent two of their top brass to the Valley to recruit the industry’s best and brightest.

Enlisting those interested in a “tour of service,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter scouted engineers on a trip to California in April, telling Stanford students, “Through successes and strains, our ties have broadly endured…but I believe we must renew the bonds of trust and rebuild the bridge between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley.”

Carter’s visit, which comes at a time when an increased number of cyber-attacks are being hurled on the government and businesses, was meant to entice young entrepreneurs to join the government and to show Washington’s interest in investing in tech startups.

And Carter isn’t alone. That same week, a few hours north, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made an appearance at the world’s largest conference on computer security professionals to discuss encrypted gadgets and phones that could limit the government’s ability to spy on terrorists.

In addition to scouting cyber-security experts, he made a plea to tech companies such as Google to keep the government’s ability to combat cybercrime in mind while building their products.

But arguably the biggest push to enlist techies is happening at the government’s ground zero: The White House.

Last August the White House launched the U.S. Digital Service, housed under the administration’s Office of Budget and Management. Created after the issues at became too big to fix internally, the group now works on fixing technological issues elsewhere within the government, from a failed visa processing system to a botched Veterans Affairs records transfer system for hospitals. The office is run by some of Silicon Valley’s best minds, including former top Google executive Mikey Dickerson.

Initiatives such as the USDS are a welcome change says Clay Johnson, who helped build and manage President Obama's successful 2008 online campaign and currently serves as the CEO of The Department of Better Technology, a software company that works with government agencies and NGOs.

“I think a lot of it has to do with and’s launch failure and the government’s acknowledgement that it did not have the best and brightest, or enough of them, that it needed inside government to launch the kinds of tech initiatives that this administration would like,” Johnson said. 

The government is often criticized for running systems that are almost two decades old, and Johnson says the need for technology updates and more user-friendly Websites is only going to grow.

“When you look forward at the president’s agenda or the next president’s agenda, whoever that may be, there is not a piece of legislation or agenda item I can think of in the future that would not require some kind of tech component,” he said.

Perhaps that’s why many government agencies are setting up shop in Silicon Valley. The DOD already has opened an office in Moffett Field, next to the site for a new Google office, while Todd Park, former Chief Technology Officer at the White House, continues to advise the administration from the Valley while trying to sell potential converts on coming to “work for Team America.”

At an Atlantic Council roundtable discussion last week, Patrick O’Reilly, senior vice president for Government and Defense Relations at Alphabet Energy, said both the federal government and Silicon Valley based businesses “have hard working professionals that face the same challenge to synchronize resources and the need to either rapidly produce a product to market, if you are a start-up, or the tech to a battlefield, if you are the Pentagon.”

However, many in Silicon Valley remain skeptical of working with the U.S. government. Some are wary of getting involved with policies they may not agree with down the road, or can’t handle the slow timeline that typically goes hand in hand with government jobs.

Some argue that there’s not enough of an incentive to work for an industry that can offer a job but not the capital to back their companies. Silicon Valley tech leaders often view success through the growth of a product. Many are looking for an investment in their companies, not simply a contract to do work.

“What really engages entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley is not revenue but capital. So one of the things the Pentagon is going to have to do is to make investments in companies — they put risk capital into companies that are working on problems that the Pentagon is interested in — that really is the life blood of Silicon Valley,” said Steven Grundman, George Lund Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center, at the roundtable.

But that doesn’t mean Valley companies don’t want any relationship with the government — in fact many are embracing former government employees as advisers to navigate often-tricky Washington policies and legal issues.

One of the highest profile examples of this is Uber’s hiring last year of David Plouffe, former campaign manager for President Obama.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced the hire last August saying, “Over the years, what I’ve come to realize is that this controversy exists because we are in the middle of a political campaign and it turns out the candidate is Uber.”

What he was referring to was Uber’s fight against regulations and challenges by taxi unions against the app-linked ride service.

In February tech giant Amazon hired former Press Secretary Jay Carney to join its public relations and public policy team.

Though the two camps may not always agree on the best ways to approach technology, both Washington and Silicon Valley groups are making it clear that they at times need each other, and that swapping of ideas, people and money won’t subside anytime soon. 

[Also by Miranda Green: Drone companies are flying faster than the FAA]

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