Startups, major corporations, and tech workers should be looking more closely at these positions as they are filled for critical statements on taxes, research, and priorities
Much ado was made of a recent Washington Post infographic about just how few nominations to critical positions President Donald J. Trump has made since taking office. As of Sunday, March 5, 2017, he had nominated 35 people to positions that the United States Senate must confirm before they can take a seat at their desks. But a total of 517 people still need to be nominated to positions only the President can appoint.
For activists and slacktivists looking for things to make Trump look bad, this set of circumstances actually sounds worse than it actually is. He has actually outpaced three of his four immediate predecessors in terms of nominations. Thirty days into Trump’s term, 14 had been confirmed out of 33 nominations. Only Barack Obama, who had 28 confirmed out of 44 nominated, was quicker to fill those staff positions. The appointments are typically made in consultation with the first people the president appoints: the secretaries of respective departments.
Several “under secretaries of state” responsible for US policy on specific regions around the world and virtually all new ambassadors have not yet been nominated. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will likely have input on who gets those jobs. Secretary Betsy DeVos will probably get a lot of say on who gets the jobs of assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and director of the Institute of Education Sciences.
A lot of these positions are vital to the future of the United States’s economy, especially its tech sector. A controversial order last week freezing H-1B visa issuance for six months (starting in April) has Silicon Valley fearful for its growth prospects as much of the startup economy is dependent on foreign talent.
Appointments will have tremendous impact on advising the president, possibly making him more timid on policies where he is aggressive and more assertive where he is resistant. This will apply not only to immigration, but to transportation policies, space travel, energy efficiency, cyber security, and beyond. Here are just 30 of the over 500 positions President Trump has not yet filled which can be occupied only after he sends nominations to the US Senate for confirmation.
1. Chief Technology Officer of the United States
Outgoing: Megan Smith
This position is actually part of the Executive Office of the President (featured more prominently lower on this list), but the importance of this position is borne in its title. Aneesh Paul Chopra was the first “CTO” in US history when President Obama announced the position early in his first term back in April 2009.
“The idea is to advise the President and his team on how to harness technology, innovation, and data on behalf of the American people,” Smith said in 2015. “So that’s a specific thing, and yet a broad thing. And it can evolve, based on what’s happening in our nation and what’s happening in tech.”
She went on to describe a major focus of the office as digital and open government. Put another way, the CTO is in charge of identifying and implementing new technologies that would help streamline government services and access to public information.
Smith is an MIT-educated engineer with a stint at Google X. She represented cutting-edge technology in the role and no doubt was also in a position to serve as a direct adviser to the president herself. The mere existence of a title like this indicates how important new kinds of computer technologies have become to the United States. Filling this position should be a major priority for President Trump.
Department of Energy
2. Assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy
Acting: Steve Chalk
The assistant secretary leads the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is an office within the United States Department of Energy first formed after the 1973 gas shortage crisis. The reasons for its birth inform its motivation to find alternative sources of energy.
The assistant secretary is charged with driving development of renewable energy, sustainable transportation, and energy efficiency as well as managing 12 national renewable energy laboratories. The office’s budget is ballooning, from $1.82 billion in 2014 to $2.89 billion in 2017.
3. Director, energy advanced research projects department
Outgoing: Ellen Williams
The position was also an invention of President Obama announced in late April 2009. The director is in charge of ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which is modeled after the DoD’s DARPA agency. Arun Majumdar got the nod as the agency’s first director.
Department of Commerce
4. Under secretary for standards and technology
Outgoing: Willie E. May
This is a relatively new position, created by Congress in 2010. The under secretary also serves as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology which are supposed to promote American industrial competitiveness with an emphasis on innovative technologies.
Department of Labor
5. Administrator, wage and hour division
Outgoing: David Weil
As boring as it sounds, people stuck in the new gig economy are going to want to hear clear policy from the federal government. Many might assume the policies coming out of this office will benefit the likes of Uber executives more than Uber drivers with a staunchly conservative and pro-business administration in power, but even if that is the case a clear set of policies will be critical for these workers. Tax policy is incredibly important and could make a major difference in the lives of low-earning Americans working through Silicon Valley’s juggernaut marketplaces.
Weil was a timely appointment by the Obama Administration. He is the author of “The Fissured Workplace,” which warns of the negative effects of a gig economy and the breakdown of the traditional employer-employee relationship. Instead of direct employment, companies are contracting out to other companies who may actually be hiring freelancers. Lost in this chain of human resource provision is who exactly will provide benefits to employees.
“The core problem of fissuring is that no one is bringing those costs into their own consideration of how they are structuring these relationships and in particular things like compliance with workplace laws or the kinds of benefits they are either going to provide or that they expect other people to provide, subsequent layers of these organizations are left open.”
Listen to the whole video (4:45)
Having someone who is fully aware of the consequences of the changing economy, the rise of marketplaces and diffusion of employer responsibility will be critical in ensuring the productivity and satisfaction of workers across the US economy and perhaps the world considering the number of foreign offices US tech giants operate.
Department of Transportation:
Federal policies on self-driving cars are slow in coming but even the industry is demanding them in order to create consistency throughout the country and override contradictory regulations between cities and states. President Trump’s idea to eliminate two regulations before implementing any new ones sounds like an elementary form of Republican libertarianism, but that’s the rule of the administration and it is disconcerting to many in the Valley. The newly appointed Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, is known as someone opposed to over-regulation. The key here will be ensuring that appointees can implement safety regulations and licensing procedures to protect the public during vehicle tests and to ensure it’s known who is driving what, when, and where.
6. Under secretary of transportation for policy
Outgoing: Blair Anderson
7. Assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs
Outgoing: Vinn White
Formally chartered in 1993, the position is tasked with market liberalization and ensuring a competitive domestic airline industry. The title implies clearly making air travel seamless across borders, but also focuses on access to more local, even rural jurisdictions classically cut off from access to air travel. In terms of new technologies, open access to the internet is one minor point and possible implementation of LiDAR on aircraft a major point that the next assistant secretary will have to cover.
8. Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST)
Outgoing: Mark Dowd
This position is responsible for finding “breakthrough knowledge” and facilitate collaborative research. Much of the rest of the checklist is generic when you think about it, but part of the description written on the office’s official page is telling for the environment the next assistant secretary will have to deal with.
“Congress transferred all RITA (Research and Innovative Technology Administration) programs into OST in order to provide opportunities for increased research collaboration and coordination, while upholding the integrity and impartiality of transportation statistical data.”
Collaboration and networking is essential considering the abundance of data collected by Uber, Lyft, Google and other companies now geo-mapping US roads and tracking commuter tendencies.
9. Administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
Acting: T. F. Scott Darling, III
10. Administrator, Federal Highway Administration
Outgoing: Gregory G. Nadeau
11. Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Outgoing: Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D.
Department of Veterans Affairs
12. Under Secretary for Health
Outgoing: David Shulkin
This one might not seem so obvious, but the existence of a Veterans Affairs (VA) position dedicated solely to health is with good reason. The pursuit of more innovative prosthetic limbs and even bionic limbs depends largely on the population those products would service.
Bionic ankle startup BionX has actually gotten investments from the VA, demonstrating the department is well-aware of how necessary cultivating this technology is not merely for the long-term health of veterans but also the morale of those currently serving.
Unfortunately, many veterans are rehabilitating after life-altering injuries that have left them without one of their arms or legs. As robotics makes these bionic limbs more dexterous and increasingly finds ways to meld them with the brain’s neural networks, the VA will be a critical partner in financing research and perhaps a top customer for new products once they are ready. Other technologies like eye-tracking developed by startup RightEye have also gotten the VA’s attention.
Lucky for this position in particular, Trump has appointed outgoing Under Secretary David Shulkin to head the entire Department of Veterans Affairs. That should be a good sign the position won’t be lost in the shuffle.
12. Assistant secretary for information and technology
Acting: Rob C. Thomas II
The long title for Mr. Thomas is Acting Chief Information Officer and the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology (OI&T), a position he has actually held for two years already. He oversees what the VA says is a colossal $4 billion IT budget and directs about 16,000 personnel (half civil servants, half contractors). All software development and new software testing goes past this desk.
Department of the Interior
13. Assistant secretary for land and minerals management
Outgoing: Janice Schneider
14. Assistant secretary for water and science
Outgoing: Tom Iseman
Department of the Treasury
How the largest companies in Silicon Valley file their taxes and how transparent they are might become burning questions in the near future. A few companies have managed to dominate venture capital investments, taking in money that is previously unheard of for private companies. Besides public interest in disclosure, the IRS will likely come back around to check the filings of some of the Bay Area’s biggest firms.
15. Assistant secretary for tax policy
Outgoing: Mark J. Mazur, leaving for Brookings Institution
16. Chief counsel, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (plus eight members of the IRS oversight board)
Outgoing: William J. Wilkins
Acting Chief Counsel and Deputy Chief Counsel (Technical): William M. Paul
Deputy Chief Counsel (Operations): Debra K. Moe
Executive Office of the President
17. Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
Outgoing: John Holdren
Often referred to as the Science Adviser to the president.
18. Intellectual property enforcement coordinator
Outgoing: Daniel (Danny) Marti
The Office of the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator had the chance to release its three year strategy for 2017-2019 in December 2016 outlining how it will coordinate resources with other government agencies like the US Patent & Trademark Office. As legal battles between Apple and Samsung on the one hand and now the likes of Google and Uber on the other become more prevalent, sorting out patents will be critical to make sure new innovation stays in the labs and makes progress rather than in the court room sitting idle.
19. Associate Director for science, office of science and technology policy
Outgoing: Jo Handelsman
20. Associate Director for technology, office of science and technology policy
21. Associate Director for national security and international affairs, Office of Science and Technology Policy
Outgoing: Dr. Patricia K. Falcone
Implementing the goals outlined by past administrations and this White House’s reported enthusiasm to get to the moon will be a tall task. Balancing the long-term interests of NASA with the constant fight for budget and an apparently fiscally conservative executive branch makes that even tougher. NASA endeavors to get to Mars before it prioritizes any other programs, but the race to the Moon and the nagging suggestion a Moon landing would be a great test run for a Martian trip will be on the next administrator’s desk. Probes to Jupiter’s Europa moon and a number of other programs will also be at the top of the agenda.
Acting: Robert M. Lightfoot, Jr.
23. Chief Financial Officer
Outgoing: David Radzanowski
24. Deputy administrator
Outgoing: Dava Newman
National Science Foundation
25. Deputy Director
Outgoing: Dr. Cora B. Marrett
Department of Homeland Security:
Threats to US infrastructure, integrating new technologies while respecting privacy, and the sudden but seemingly impulsive enforcement of stricter visa requirements will have incredible influence on US tech firms. Cyber security companies will hope for a piece of the pie when Washington hands out contracts to guard valuable infrastructure, but at the same time a balance will likely have to be struck on things like H-1B visas if said cyber companies want to succeed in the short term.
Even surprise checks on people holding visas that test academic skills in computer programming leave some in Silicon Valley trembling that getting granted a visa might be no guarantee that a major recruit from India who specializes in a critical skill will actually be able to leave the airport. Flexible appointments at immigration services and border control might be critical to ensuring a steady flow of talent and knowledge to Silicon Valley.
26. Under secretary for science and technology
Outgoing: Dr. Reginald Brothers
27. Assistant Secretary, Office of Cybersecurity and Communications
Acting: Danny Toler
28. Assistant Secretary, Infrastructure Protection
Outgoing: Ms. Caitlin A. Durkovich
29. Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Acting: Lori Scialabba
30. Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Acting: Kevin K. McAleenan