Trump forms council to modernize government IT

For decades, US presidents have appointed special technology advisors, but federal IT systems remain woefully outdated.

The White House announced Monday that President Donald J. Trump has signed an executive order establishing the American Technology Council (ATC).

"Americans deserve better digital services from their Government," the executive order reads. The council's purpose, it says, is to promote policies that help the federal government "transform and modernize its information technology and how it uses and delivers digital services."

Chris Liddell, the White House director of strategic initiatives who previously worked for Microsoft and General Motors, will serve as the director of the council. The council will include 19 members, including Liddell, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and other cabinet members like the Defense secretary and the Homeland Security secretary.

Not all of the government officials expected to serve on the ACT have been appointed. Trump has yet to nominate anyone to serve as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, nor has he named a Chief Technology Officer. Last month, a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Trump, urging him to fill those positions quickly.

The new council also includes the administrator of the US Digital Service, a group the Obama administration formed in 2014 to improve federal IT.

While the Trump administration's interest and expertise in technology issues has been called into question, forming an advisory committee such as ACT is a pretty standard White House move.

In fact, a Congressional Research Service report says that presidents have relied on science and technology advice from advisory boards and committees since the early 1930s. The Kennedy administration created the Office of Science and Technology within the executive office of the president, but after Nixon scrapped it, Congress stepped in and in 1976 created the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to provide advice to the president.

Since then, many presidents have appointed the OSTP director to also serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (APST) so they can provide confidential advice. The ASTP manages the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), an interagency body that President Bill Clinton established in 1993 to coordinate science and technology policy across the federal government. In 2010, President Barack Obama also established the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a council of external advisors.

In spite of the work of all of these advisory groups and committees, federal IT is woefully outdated, the Government Accountability Office found last year, with some agencies using 50-year-old technology.

"For example," the report said, "Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation's nuclear forces. In addition, Department of the Treasury uses assembly language code -- a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed."

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