By Issie Lapowsky for WIRED.
It was 10:15 am on Inauguration Day, and John Paul Farmer was beginning to lose hope.
The former Obama White House staffer had spent the last night at his sister’s apartment in Washington DC, working the phones and emailing any sentient being he’d met during his years in Washington. Farmer was trying to find someone, anyone, who could get the Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional Talent Act — the Talent Act, for short — to President Barack Obama. The bill would make law a program to give technologists temporary tours of government duty.
It had received bipartisan support in the House and Senate that week, but it still needed the president’s signature to become law. If he signed, it would take another act of Congress to dismantle.
But with roads closed throughout Washington, security checkpoints causing even more gridlock, a shoestring staff left at the White House, and less than two hours to go in Obama’s presidency, odds seemed slim that the physical piece of parchment on which the law was printed would get to the 44th president before there was a 45th.
Farmer, who co-founded the so-called Presidential Innovation Fellows program, the centerpiece of the bill, wasn’t sure they were going to make it. Neither was Matt Lira, a senior advisor to House majority leader Kevin McCarthy who’d been instrumental in McCarthy’s decision to introduce the bill. Lira hoped the Talent Act would show that bipartisan consensus is possible in Washington, particularly when it comes to technology. But it was starting to look like the opportunity would pass.
Over the last week, it’s become clear how much of a president’s legacy can be erased with a signature. On everything from immigration to the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Donald Trump has begun the work of erasing the last eight years. But this isn’t a story about that. This is the story of how a band of technophiles from both sides of the political aisle joined forces in the last minutes of the Obama administration to ensure that President Obama’s efforts to modernize the government would survive his term of office.
This is the story of how a band of technophiles from both sides of the political aisle joined forces in the last minutes of the Obama administration to ensure that President Obama’s efforts to modernize the government would survive his term of office.
Peace Corps for Programers
The Presidential Innovation Fellows launched in 2012 as a sort of Peace Corps for programmers. The idea was to make it possible for technologists to take on temporary projects within government, from simple tasks like building user-friendly websites to quite complex ones, like saving the broken Healthcare.gov website.
Fellows worked on Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot, building tech tools to fast track patients through clinical trials. They helped build the Blue Button Initiative, an effort to make people’s health records readily available to them. And they designed elements of the Veteran Affairs office’s online employment center, making it easier for vets to find job opportunities. More than 100 fellows have cycled through the program since 2012.
What’s more, the success of the program inspired the launch of the United States Digital Service, a more permanent, but separate, tech agency within the White House, as well as 18F, a sort of consulting firm inside the General Services Administration that deploys technologists to various government agencies.
But the Fellows only ever existed because of an executive order signed by President Obama. So, last summer, in hopes of codifying it into law, McCarthy introduced the Talent Act of 2016. It passed the House almost unanimously. But the Senate didn’t go as well. “It got caught up in election year politics,” Lira says.
“We thought, ‘Well that’s it,’” Farmer says. “President Obama is leaving office and a new Congress is coming in. We’d have to do the whole process over again.”
When the 115th Congress was sworn in in January, McCarthy reintroduced the bill — now the Talent Act of 2017. This time, three days before the Inauguration, it passed the Senate unanimously. The last step — as any Schoolhouse Rock fan knows — would be for President Obama to sign.
That’s hard enough even when half of Washington hasn’t already turned in their Blackberries. “It’s the oldest school of old school processes,” Lira says. “It has to be printed on a certain kind of parchment and everything.”
A Triumphant Finale
Which brings us to Friday morning. By around 8 AM, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Orrin Hatch, president pro tem of the Senate, had signed that piece of parchment. It was sitting in the House clerk’s office, ready to be delivered to President Obama. But no one, it seemed, knew how to get it to him.
That’s when Farmer and Lira, as well as former US deputy CTO Nick Sinai, former head of the fellowship program Garren Givens, and his wife (and a former Senate staffer) Alexandra Reeve Givens, sprung into action. They called the clerk’s office, the White House, and every Senate staffer they knew. At around 10:15, after reaching one of the President’s senior advisers, they figured out how to get the House clerk into the Capitol holding room where President Obama would spend a few private moments before watching Trump take the oath of office.
“At this point, we go dark,” Givens says. He was negotiating all of this via his mobile phone, from a trampoline park where he and his wife were babysitting their nephews. “There’s no one else to call. There’s no one else to ask.”
“I watched the president get out of the car and walk into the Capitol,” says Farmer, “and I knew we’d done everything we could.”
A hundred miles away in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lira was watching, too, and was just as tense. Would the clerk make it in time? “It was this Argo-like moment,” he says.
To be fair, Lira had faith the Trump administration would pass the bill even if Obama couldn’t. Givens and Farmer didn’t. More than that, though, Farmer felt the bill would be a fitting coda to President Obama’s tech legacy. “It was foundational to so much of the progress his administration made,” he says.
At some point after 11 AM, the House clerk entered the holding room where President Obama was waiting and presented him with the bill. Obama paused. This, then, would be his last official act as president. Obama looked at the parchment, and signed.
The group gathered around the soon-to-be former president applauded, and at 11:07 AM on January 20, 2017, the Talent Act became law. “It was like the ending to a great movie,” Lira says. “The good guys won.”
The Presidential Innovation Fellowship may be one of the few slivers of the Obama presidency that endures the next four years. In another small consolation to Obama’s tech legacy, the White House’s new chief digital officer also recently tweeted that the US Digital Service “is here to stay in the new administration. Period.”
That may not comfort Obama’s admirers, who are watching the signature accomplishments of his presidency quickly slipping away. But it’s as clear a sign as any that the role of technology in government should never be a partisan issue. And that it doesn’t have to be.
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