Councils and Policy

A bunch of friends in Silicon Valley have asked some version of “what was surprising to you in government?” or “what did you learn about government?” This is the first of a series of posts answering those questions.

Most policy within the Obama White House was decided through policy councils, and their Principals, Deputies, and Interagency Committees. These are both specific groups of people (similar to Boards of Directors at companies) and also can be departments that are staffed within the White House (similar to business units within companies). What each council decides and the membership of the various councils are important determinants of the quality of decisions and what policy can be advanced. This post gives some background about a non-exhaustive list of policy councils, their jurisdiction, and their membership with a focus on those relevant to tech policy.


One important note is that the Obama administration found it useful to ensure that tech and scientific expertise had its own council-like apparatus and had seats at each of the other policy making tables so that policy decisions could be informed by the latest technical and scientific innovations. The Trump administration has signaled that it also believes that tech is important to effective governance and now is the time that administrations typically begin to formalize how they make decisions as well as the jurisdiction, membership, and attendees of their various councils (indeed the President Trump just did so for the National Security Council -- see this earlier post for more on the changes and why they are bad). Inside and outside of the administration it is important to understand these powerful policy levers and structure them to be most effective. Today, given the importance of technology and science to policymaking of all types, that means including technical and scientific expertise at each of these tables.


National Security Council
President Truman established the National Security Council (NSC) in 1947, and it is enshrined in law as part of the National Security chapter of Title 50. Its function is to:
“advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.”
It is led by the President of the United States or their delegate and must include the Vice President and Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy but it can include others either at all meetings or only when germane. President Obama gave direction as to its jurisdiction, decision making processes, and membership in his first Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-1) published less than a month after his inauguration. Reading PPD-1 gives a good sense of how policy councils operate, with principals, deputies, and interagency committees all working to produce policy decisions.


NSC was the most important and largest of the councils during my time in government. Its staff were experts at running effective process and went on to become important members of the Office of the Chief of Staff, including the Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough; his advisor and Deputy Assistant to the President, Natalie Quillian; and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation and Assistant to the President, Kristie Canegallo.  Getting a seat for an NSC decision meeting on an important topic could be difficult as NSC staff tried to keep the decision making tight. However, being there was extremely important and, depending on the decision, getting tech expertise in the room could be the difference between making one decision and another.


President Obama convenes the NSC in the White House Situation Room
Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza

National Economic Council
The National Economic Council (NEC) was created by President Clinton and enshrined by an Executive Order in 1993. Its remit is to:
“(1) to coordinate the economic policy-making process with respect to domestic and international economic issues; (2) to coordinate economic policy advice to the President; (3) to ensure that economic policy decisions and programs are consistent with the President’s stated goals, and to ensure that those goals are being effectively pursued; and (4) to monitor implementation of the President’s economic policy agenda”
It is led by the President of the United States or their delegate and includes the Vice President a wide range of agency heads, leads of White House components, and Assistants to the President. President Obama expanded its membership to add more members, including the U.S. Chief Technology Officer.


Domestic Policy Council
The Domestic Policy Council (DPC) existed as a counterpart to the NSC focused on domestic policy generally until the NEC was formed to deal with economic issues, which created the narrower modern DPC through Executive Order. Its functions are:
“(1) to coordinate the domestic policy-making process; (2) to coordinate domestic policy advice to the President; (3) to ensure that domestic policy decisions and programs are consistent with the President’s stated goals, and to ensure that those goals are being effectively pursued; and (4) to monitor implementation of the President’s domestic policy agenda.”
It is led by the President of the United States or their delegate and includes the Vice President a wide range of agency heads, leads of White House components, and Assistants to the President. President Obama also modernized the makeup of the DPC, including adding the U.S. Chief Technology Officer to its membership.


National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council planning meeting in the Roosevelt Room
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza



National Science and Technology Council
The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) was created by President Clinton in 1993 through Executive Order as a policymaking body for Science and Technology policy. Its functions are:
(1) to coordinate the science and technology policymaking process; (2) to ensure science and technology policy decisions and programs are consistent with the President’s stated goals; (3) to help integrate the President’s science and technology policy agenda across the Federal Government; (4) to ensure science and technology are considered in development and implementation of Federal policies and programs; and (5) to further international cooperation in science and technology.
It is led by the President of the United States or their delegate and includes the Vice President a wide range of agency heads, leads of White House components, and Assistants to the President. President Bush added the Secretary of Homeland Security. NSTC was active during the Obama administration under the leadership of the President’s Science Advisor, Dr. John Holdren.


Tech Policy Task Force
The Tech Policy Task Force (TPTF) is a Executive Office of the President (EOP) policymaking body formed during the Obama Administration to develop tech policy and advise other policy councils. It is chaired by the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and its membership includes the leadership of each of the technology components within the EOP (e.g., the Federal Chief Information Officer, the U.S. Digital Service Administrator, etc.) as well as representatives from each of the other policy councils. In contrast to other councils, more than half of TPTF membership is drawn from tech components.
TPTF’s work in the Obama Administration included public policy that is tech focused, such as Artificial Intelligence policy, and policy in which tech plays a role, such as consumer privacy or national security declassification. TPTF has been used to create tech-related policy, such as the Federal Source Code Policy; to enable and engage in a policy discussion in another policy council; to advise and assist with agency efforts, such as international connectivity with the State
Department; and to answer questions raised by the President’s senior advisors and other EOP
leadership, such as with respect to cybersecurity and the Cybersecurity National Action Plan.
TPTF, in turn, has been leveraged in the policymaking efforts of other policy councils, such as
the NSC, to enhance their work with tech expertise.


For More Information
Abramson, Mark; Wagner, Martin; Breul, Jonathan; Kamensky, John; and Chenok, Daniel editors, Getting It Done A Guide for Government Executives, Revised Edition, Rowan & Littlefield (2013) (See Chapter 8 for a detailed description of policy councils).
Sargent, John & Shea, Dana, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP): History and Overview, Congressional Research Service (2016) (providing an overview of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, NSTC, and the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology).

N.B. This post was mostly written before President Trump’s NSC organizing Memorandum last Saturday which caused me to write a summary of the bad changes he made to the NSC that duplicates some language from this one.

Update 1/31/17: This post was updated to make the relationship between Councils and Principals, Deputies, and Interagency Committees more clear.

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