Many of the revolving doors between Washington and industries like banking could do with some fixing or slowing. One worth spinning more often is from Silicon Valley.
Persistent concerns over conflicts of interest have prompted a fresh effort in Congress to crack down on financiers taking a turn in government. There has already been some reduction in the scope for regulatory capture under Barack Obama. The U.S. president has appointed 56 people to oversee the same industry in which they worked – so-called reverse revolvers – compared to 64 for Bill Clinton and 91 for George W. Bush, according to consumer advocate Public Citizen.
There’s no shortage of individuals rotating out of Obama’s orbit into lobbying roles. Marilyn Tavenner, the former head of Medicare and Medicaid and the official in charge of the president’s Healthcare.gov rollout, will soon represent health insurers. The technology industry, too, has recruited more and more Washington insiders. Longtime political strategist and Obama adviser David Plouffe, for example, last year became Uber’s chief policy director.
The flow in the other direction is more recent. The White House has been on a mission to give computer nerds a louder voice in government, an effort that gathered momentum after the president convened a team of experts to rescue the disastrous launch of his healthcare website in 2013. Since then, high-profile recruits including engineers Megan Smith from Google and Ellen Ratajak, formerly at Amazon, along with data scientist DJ Patil, have helped. The president hired a Facebook employee for a new senior role last week.
Like corporate boards, the U.S. executive branch requires greater technological expertise, whether for cybersecurity, software procurement or simple web design purposes. Significant deterrents remain, however. Where practitioners of law, finance and other industries see a stretch in government as a way both to give back and to advance their careers, most Silicon Valley denizens worry that a bureaucracy will thwart their fast-moving ways.
Obama’s nearly year-old U.S. Digital Service initiative, along with 18F – a startup-minded IT SWAT team within the General Services Administration – should help change perceptions. Persuading a prominent tech entrepreneur and chief executive to take a tour of public duty would help advance the cause. The best way to tell that the mission has been accomplished may be when the griping about revolving doors starts to include the technology sector.