(Bloomberg) -- Right after President Donald Trump took office, Mikey Dickerson traveled to Silicon Valley to make a pitch for the U.S. Digital Service, a program he’d run that’s brought hundreds of technologists to Washington to improve the government’s clunky computers and unsecured networks.
As a political appointee, Dickerson’s job ended in January, yet he volunteered to recruit for the program. Then Trump signed his initial travel ban on Jan. 27.
“Prior to that day, I was willing to meet with people and tell them about my experience, but not after that,” said Dickerson, a 38-year-old former engineering manager at Google who came to Washington to supervise the effort to rescue the Obamacare website after its disastrous debut. With protests erupting over Trump’s ban, Dickerson says he didn’t feel that he could recommend working in the new administration to his old colleagues.
Government work has always been a tough sell for technology whizzes. The pay is lousy compared with what top engineers and developers can make in the private sector, and the work can be frustrating -- you’re more likely to be fixing old systems than developing new ones.
After the failed rollout of the healthcare.gov website in 2013, the Obama administration created programs such as the Digital Service to recruit talented people in the tech industry who could inject some startup know-how into government. Now many are wondering if they should stay.
“Technologists were overwhelmingly opposed” to Trump’s candidacy, says Herbert Lin, a cyber research fellow at Stanford University. The administration is “doing things that have the potential of creating more barriers.”
Recruiting is becoming even harder among computer wonks, many of them young, liberal and at odds with Trump’s positions on issues from gay rights and abortion to net neutrality.
In California’s Santa Clara county, the heart of Silicon Valley, Trump won just 20.7 percent of the vote, compared with 73.4 percent for Hillary Clinton.
Tensions between the new administration in Washington and the technology community have played out in headlines: Facebook Inc. let employees take time off to join pro-immigrant protests. Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. stood by their pledges to fight climate change as Trump reversed Obama’s policies. A lawyer-turned-venture capitalist vowed to give $1 million to charity if Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, who’s serving on White House advisory panels, agreed to “dump Trump” by condemning the president’s climate change policies.
The Trump administration seems to recognize it may have a problem on its hands. On April 28, the president signed an executive order establishing the American Technology Council to help the federal government deliver better digital services. The council will report to the White House’s recently created Office of American Innovation, run by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The White House also is inviting technology CEOs to meetings in June to discuss modernizing government digital services.
But according to current and former employees of the U.S. Digital Service and 18F -- a General Services Administration initiative to help federal agencies build and buy digital services -- Trump’s policies have already hurt their ability to retain staff. The Digital Service had 101 employees at the White House as of March 15 -- 18 fewer than on Jan. 15, days before Trump’s inauguration, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News through Freedom of Information Act requests. At 18F, the number of employees dropped to 157 on March 15, from 166 two months earlier.
While there’s turnover with every presidential transition, Dickerson says he knows of about 15 people who’ve left the Digital Service since Trump became president because they disagreed with him. Others have decided to leave over fears that working under the Trump administration will hurt their job prospects in Silicon Valley.
David Eaves, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University, says tech initiatives under Obama persuaded software engineers to give back through public service. But the Trump administration “hasn’t really built its brand around notions of public service,” Eaves says.
‘Find A Message’
“The big question is, will they be able to recruit?” Eaves adds. “They’re going to have to find a message that makes them appealing.”
The Obama-era programs have their critics as well, who say the federal technology stints are too short, typically lasting six months to a year, so those who take part spend much of their time just trying to learn how the federal bureaucracy works. It’s also daunting to ask tech workers to take a pay cut and relocate --- on their own dime -- and to give up their privacy to get the top-secret security clearance that’s required.
Still, swat teams from the Digital Service and 18F have helped agencies assess digital tools and applications and developers to build more secure solutions, according to Grant Schneider, the acting U.S. chief information security officer.
“The incoming administration is very interested in what are the tools and capabilities across the federal government” in technology and cybersecurity, Schneider said in an interview. “They’re going to assess the tools that are available against the tools that they’re going to need.”
Several technology leaders hired under Obama are still on the job. Matt Cutts, a 15-year veteran at Google who headed the company’s web spam team and joined the Digital Service last year at the Pentagon, is now its acting administrator.
As of April 19, the program had more than 170 people, including those at the White House and affiliated workers deployed at other federal agencies.
“Now that the freeze is over, we have a number of qualified applicants we will be bringing on board,” Cutts says. He says there’s a “strong appetite in the tech industry to work on impactful problems” while conceding that Trump’s initial freeze on federal hiring, since rescinded, made it difficult to replace departing staff. In blog posts and social media, some who stayed on said they view their work as nonpartisan.
But on social media, Digital Service alumni and employees tout their past work, including digitizing and improving the process for U.S. refugee admissions, with comments such as “we don’t work on this anymore.” Other current or former employees say they want assurances they wouldn’t have to work on parts of the Trump agenda they oppose, such as the border wall or databases they fear could be used to discriminate against Muslims.
It’s unclear what Trump’s new initiatives will do or how they’ll fit with existing efforts, including the Digital Service and 18F. Dickerson says until it’s known how Trump plans to use the programs, he won’t recruit for them.
“The first problem to solve is perception,” Dickerson, the former Digital Service administrator, says. “They haven’t provided any insight into what they want this team to do.”