My Time in The Biden-Harris Administration

I recently (ok, not that recently) left the Biden-Harris Administration after serving in a variety of ways over the last few years. Initially I was part of the transition team. Then, after a break, I became Deputy Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy US Chief Technology Officer (CTO), in the Office of Science and Technology Policy through the wonderful National Science Foundation Technology, Innovation and Partnerships Directorate. I'm grateful for the time I had in the administration, the phenomenal people I got to work with, and the impact we had together.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building hallway leading to the Navy Steps down to the White House. One of my favorite views in the EEOB. In the morning the light as you walk towards those doors is blinding.

Joining the small but mighty CTO team in the fall of 2021 was quite different from when I held a similar role in the Obama-Biden Administration. For one thing, I was joining at the beginning of an administration, not the end. For another, President Biden had learned a number of lessons during his long career and time as Vice President that led his administration to keep a rigorous focus on the priorities President Biden had outlined on the campaign and to prioritize effective implementation of policy initiatives at the highest level. Finally, from a tech perspective, the government in 2021 was different than in 2014. 

The first US CTOs extended our government’s capacity to use technology effectively and brought tech expertise to White House policy making. In 2009, few agencies used modern technology fluently. Many career techie civil servants were pushing for change but were met with the various forms of resistance as Jen Pahlka details in her exceptional book, Recoding America. The first three US CTOs, Aneesh Chopra, Todd Park, Megan Smith and their teams were successful in a wide array of policy areas. They opened data sets for transparency and innovation, championed expanding digital medical records, helped increase access to broadband, brought more tech expertise to policy tables, and much more.

They also made significant strides, working with many others at the White House and across government agencies, in building the capacity of the federal government to deliver modern technology. That included helping to create the US Digital Service, the Tech Transformation Service, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, and supporting the creation of agency digital services (e.g. the Defense Digital Service, Health and Human Services Digital Service, etc) and the transformative work of the federal and agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Data Officers (CDOs). 

One of the most exciting things about being back in government in 2021 was how different it was from 2009. In 2021, there was significant tech expertise in all of the White House policy counsels, from the Domestic Policy Council, to both the National Economic Council and National Security Council. Even without counting the excellent CTO Team, the Office of Science and Technology Policy had significant technical expertise in its other divisions – including Alondra Nelson’s incredible Science and Society division. Both Alondra and Arati Prabhakar, two of the three Office of Science and Technology Directors during my tenure, were highly technically sophisticated. In addition, leaders at agencies across the spectrum were increasing technical fluency at all levels.

Senior Staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy circa May 2022.

Furthermore, the centralized tech experts at the US Digital Service, Federal CIO, and GSA were – and still are – thriving under strong leadership of Mina Hsiang, Clare Martorana, and Robin Carnahan. Many agencies have digital services groups of their own, while others have bulked up their CIO, CTO or other offices to more aggressively pursue strong digital service delivery. And, if you looked into the teams working on the biggest problems, such as climate change or COVID-19, you’d find strong tech experts.

I love walking meetings. This is staged for the White House photographer. In real ones I wouldn't be wearing a suit. With me are two wonderful members of the CTO team, Ismael Hussein and April Chen. 

While the government environment was changing, the CTO team’s core mission remained the same. Our priorities were to build tech capacity and advise on policy, all in the service of delivering on the President’s agenda and delivering results for the American people. The CTO team still works hard on establishing good tech policy, including in the areas of artificial intelligence, digital assets (cryptocurrency), privacy, platform regulation, advanced air mobility, web accessibility, broadband access, wireless spectrum policy and in many other areas. Also, under the leadership of Denice Ross and now Dominique Duval-Diop in the role of U.S. Chief Data Scientist, we had the privilege of continuing to support federal data science expertise, including in the development of equitable data that can be used to ensure government benefits and services reach those who  need them the most and that data science is  a  key  part of   policy implementation. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris meeting with AI CEOs on the promise and risks of AI. This meeting and its followup commitments are examples of the types of tools the CTO team used to drive policy forward. 

Delving deeper on the team’s artificial intelligence work the US CTO team was deeply involved in President Biden’s work on AI. The team helped draft and launch the landmark Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. We spearheaded the Biden-Harris AI CEO convening that resulted in a set of commitments from the largest AI companies regarding AI. We led, hosted or participated in the various White House AI processes to create federal AI policy as well as subsidiary policies such as the National AI Research and Development Strategic Plan. We put forward the National AI Research Resource to ensure public sector participation in AI research and development. We also hosted the National AI Initiative Office, the federal coordination body for AI policy. That comprehensive approach to AI is similar to how we approached other policy areas.

Alondra Nelson leading a panel during the launch of the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights in October 2022. I was proud to have helped draft and achieve the internal consensus required to publish the Blueprint. It was a deep collaboration with the Science and Society Division.

There is still a ton of work to do and the leadership team now in place on the US CTO team is phenomenal. Deirdre Mulligan is the Principal Deputy US CTO and is someone I’ve wanted to work with – or for – for more than 20 years, Austin Bonner is Deputy US CTO for Policy, Wade Shen is Deputy US CTO for AI and leads the National AI Initiative Office, Denice Ross is now Deputy US for Tech Capacity, Dominique Duval-Diop is US Chief Data Scientist, and Nik Marda, the longest current serving member of the CTO team, is the Chief of Staff. Working with each of them, and the rest of the CTO team is what I miss most about having left the administration. Watching them take the team in new directions will be the best thing about sitting on the sidelines.

Zoom tiles from a meeting of the CTO team.

Our third US CTO, Megan Smith, sometimes joked that the CTO team’s job would be fundamentally different when there were as many tech experts in all the rooms as lawyers or economists. That dream imagines a government that always delivers services effectively, efficiently, and equitably on behalf of the American people. A government that understands, and can keep up with, technologies and the disruptions they create to mitigate harm and ensure that people can maximally benefit from our phenomenally innovative nation. I was privileged to be able to work towards that dream. 

P.S. Now is a critical time to come into government as a techie. The potential to make a deep positive impact on the lives of people is huge. It is also a time of tremendous opportunity because of President Biden’s genuine empathy in understanding people’s needs, as well as his focus and excellence in execution in delivering on their behalf.

If you are interested in getting involved, please consider applying to join the United States Digital Service, Tech Transformation Services, Presidential Innovation Fellows,US Digital Corps or the broader set of government technical jobs on the Federal Tech Jobs Portal.

One of my favorite views. When leaving around sunset, there would often be a murmeration of starlings near the edge of the South Lawn with the Washington Monument in the background.