Digital government push has stalled

For more than 20 years we've had administrations keeping the pressure on moving government into the online age.

At the swearing in of new Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump said the administration would roll out its plan for what comes after the Affordable Care Act in March. He said his plan for a tax overhaul would come after that. Both big, national issues.

More parochially, I’m waiting for what the president’s policies will be on some of the nuts-and-bolts of running the government.

For instance, digital government.

That effort took a hit this week when the White House chief digital officer, Gerrit Lansing, abruptly left. It might have been something to do with his background check. It might have been a business encumbrance he didn’t get out of. Judging from the proctoscope-like security form 86 — it’s a wonder anyone gets through alive.

Regardless, the U.S. Digital Service, reportedly supported by the Trump administration, has hit a bump. At least it has a website, unlike, say, the Office of Procurement Policy. But in the photo of the happy jeans-and-open toe shoe’d crowd in the Indian Treaty Room, you can still spot the departed USDS leader under the Obama administration, Mikey Dickerson. Someone removed the blog section. You can link to it but the posts have been moved to  the hip hosting site Medium. Did the Obama or the Trump team do that?

I don’t yet have a clear picture of what the Trump administration will do with respect to digital government, nor of how hard it will pull on the rope to keep dragging the government into the contemporary online world. For more than 20 years, we’ve had administrations keeping the pressure up.

Netscape Communications released Version 1.0 of its Navigator browser during President Bill Clinton’s first term. I first viewed the World Wide Web from the West Wing office of Clinton staff member Jock Gill on an informal Saturday morning tour. He had a Sun Microsystems workstation, and called up a website, saying, “See? That’s Japan.”

We’d peeked into the Oval office, stopping at the velvet rope placed there when unoccupied by the president. A can of Diet Coke sat on the Resolute.

As the nation became enchanted by the promise of life online and ran out to buy zillions of Gateway computers and Hayes modems, the federal government became an online presence. Federal sites weren’t very good, but the Clinton White House understood the importance of the Internet and pushed to get agencies to join in. At the time, a sort of grassroots group called the federal web consortium sprang up, proving the bureaucracy housed many people with a keen interest in the emerging technology vector.

It still does.

The Bush administration advanced what came to be called e-government, moving sites from view-only to transactional. Bush, in a slightly burlesque fashion, pushed a big red plunger to “launch” during a ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building auditorium.

The Obama administration pushed further to try and keep up with the  best commercial trends. Digital government takes transactions further in part by adding data-based services and acknowledging mobile and cloud services. It launched USDS and its little sister, 18F, at the General Services Administration, to help agencies with digital challenges. Obama added oomph by conducting meetings on social media.

The presidents backed up all of these initiatives with written policies crafted by OMB.

Now USDS drifts. 18F chief Rob Cook tries to navigate past repeated oversight investigations showing an tiny bureau with big budget and management problems. I pity the guy a little, coming from the West Coast like a waif in October, dropping into the huge meat grinder of an acrimonious transition and the Washington gotcha gears.

Your move, President Trump.

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