Top executives from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other Silicon Valley titans are expected to meet with President Trump Monday afternoon as the White House kicks off an effort to improve the federal government’s digital services for everyday Americans.
From upgrading slow, outdated websites to streamlining how veterans receive their health benefits, the administration wants to hear ideas from leaders including Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Monday’s gathering will be the most closely watched assemblage of tech luminaries since Trump first met with a number of industry CEOs at Trump Tower in New York in December. Like the Obama administration, Trump’s White House has been looking for ways to use technology to streamline government and supercharge its features for U.S. citizens. With many of the companies in the room having pioneered data-driven business practices, the White House hopes a little bit of that expertise will rub off.
“It should be as easy to apply for benefits as it is to deposit a check on your phone,” according to a copy of the agenda sent to companies ahead of the meeting. “Citizen services are at a tipping point and the government has a significant opportunity to transform its most important services.”
Trump is expected to meet with the executives at 5 p.m. after several hours of workshops on issues such as cybersecurity, cloud computing and the recruitment of talent from the private sector. High-skilled immigration, a long-time priority for the industry, will be getting special attention, as will drones, robots and the growing connectivity of everyday devices such as thermostats.
But while the substance of the day’s agenda may be focused on wonky policy issues, some in the tech industry are bracing for an undercurrent of tension that’s only gotten more pronounced since that early winter meeting. For months, Trump has been making decisions that cut against Silicon Valley’s business interests and challenge its largely progressive slant on social issues. His travel ban in late January affecting a number of Muslim-majority countries wound up preventing some tech workers from entering the United States, while his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement deeply wounded tech leaders who view climate change as a major priority. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk decided to stop advising Trump over the issue.
Trump’s call on Paris hasn’t dampened the White House’s relationship with Silicon Valley, senior administration officials said Friday, speaking confidentially in order to discuss Monday’s closed-door session. But many in the tech industry appear to disagree, particularly among rank-and-file employees who have called for strong public denunciations of the administration’s climate change stance.
“I think a lot of people are discouraged, to say the least, by what we’ve seen,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of Tech:NYC, a group that represents New York-based tech firms. “In this political climate, the best hope for getting things done are the things that don’t make a lot of headlines.”
That may include some of the issues on Monday’s agenda, such as streamlining federal procurement policy and raising the profile of public-private partnerships. The White House has asked companies whether they would support more leaves-of-absence for engineers and other employees so that they can join the government for temporary tours of duty there, much in the way Obama brought in experts from Google to help fix Healthcare.gov.
Still, Silicon Valley’s wariness of the Trump administration is prompting some in the industry to say that a day-long series of flashy CEOs workshops is mostly for show — and no substitute for the dull drudgery of simply doing the work.
“The whole belief that you’re going to bring these high-level thinkers to a table for an hour or two and have them solve all these things is at the heart of what this administration’s problems are,” said one tech industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely. “As Trump has said, ‘Who knew healthcare could be so difficult?’ Well, who knew that cloud infrastructure could be so difficult? Who knew that Big Data could be so difficult? They’re all about the scalps in the room.”