A company called Civis Analytics is emblematic of the revolving door between the Obama campaigns, Google executives and the White House.
Civis, whose sole-investor is Eric Scmidt, has become the destination of choice for “data whiz kids” from Obama’s 2012 campaign: at least 27 of them have gone to work for the company, according to data compiled by the Google Transparency Project. In turn, those employees are then deployed by the White House to work on President Obama’s top policy priorities.
According to GTP data compiled from White House visitor logs, Civis executives have met at least 51 times with White House officials working on policy matters such as healthcare reform, federal technology acquisition reform and even homeland security and national security matters. Meeting records show Civis employees were drafted to work alongside Google engineers on loan to help fix the broken HealthCare.gov site in 2013.
Civis’ doesn’t disclose its revenues or the value of its work for the Obama administration. But a review of FEC, IRS and campaign filing databases shows the company receiving more than $3.5 million in payments from Democratic campaigns in the last two cyclesi.
The group was credited with helping engineer Obama’s unexpected five-million-vote margin of victory on election night. Schmidt, a key Obama campaign advisor, helped recruit many of the data engineers and statisticians working on the campaign and spent election night celebrating with the group at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters.iii He remains actively involved in the company as a board member and is often quoted in Civis press releases and promotional materials.iv Civis Analytics was conceived on election night in 2012, when Schmidt approached Dan Wagner, the chief analytics officer for Obama’s re-election campaign, about investing in Wagner’s new big data company. At the time, Wagner led the OFA data analytics team and worked in what was known on the Obama campaign as “The Cave”.ii
Even before Civis was officially incorporated in May of 2013, it began playing a major role in Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative, healthcare reform. According to visitor logs, its future executives met with David Simas who, as director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, was a key official responsible for implementing the Affordable Care Act, as early as March 2013.v
Civis worked with several companies and non-profits through Enroll America to enroll the millions of Americans eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.vi vii
One company Civis appears to have worked with closely during this period was GMMB Inc., founded by Obama campaign adviser Jim Margolis. Margolis oversaw Obama’s $450 million in advertising buys during the 2012 election and produced the President’s two inaugurals. Civis partnered with GMMB on several occasions to provide statistical modeling and surveys to better target GMMB’s advertisements to the uninsured.viii ix Enroll America’s 2013 tax filing shows GMMB receiving $398,000 in consulting payments.x
By early October 2013, the implementation and rollout of HealthCare.gov was being described as a disaster in news reports as the website collapsed almost immediately after its launch.xi The White House chief technology officer, Todd Park, quickly tapped Civis to help fix the site after learning from the White House political office about the group’s work with Enroll America and that the company was home to several former Obama for America “whiz kids.”xii
On October 18, 2013, Civis Analytics CTO Gabriel Burt and two non-Civis software engineers met with Todd Park, visitor logs show.xiii Burt had previously served as a lead analytics engineer on the Obama for America campaign, joining Civis Analytics after the election in January 2013.xiv
They discussed how the Civis team might help assess the damage and begin repairing the HealthCare.gov website.xv It’s not clear if Civis’ work on HealthCare.gov was an extension of its work with Enroll America or part of a separate government contract.
At Burt’s suggestion, another Obama campaign alumnus, Google engineer Mikey Dickerson, was also pulled into the effort.xvi Burt recruited Dickerson to travel to Washington where the Google engineer spent the next four months leading the team to repair the website, as a temporary employee for healthcare contractor QSSI. Dickerson later became the founding member of the U.S. Digital Service. [See article on USDS]
Between the initial October 18 meeting with Burt and the repair of the HealthCare.gov website in late December, Civis employees and Dickerson met three more times with White House officials at the highest levels, including a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonoughxvii and a meeting of Civis engineers, Dickerson and former Google employees in the White House Situation Room.xviii
As the HealthCare.gov crisis ebbed in late 2014, Civis executives turned their focus to other White House policy priorities, meeting with officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the White House Domestic Policy Council, and the offices of Political Affairs and Public Engagement, as well as additional meetings with Park throughout February 2014.xix
Civis’ CEO Wagner established himself as a key player in the White House’s political and policy operation, joining a meeting in January 2015 of President Obama and his top political advisors, including David Axelrod, James “Jay” Carney, Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina, David Plouffe and Joe Rospars.xx
What the Data Suggest
Schmidt’s investment in Civis Analytics greatly expanded his access and influence with the White House.
The extraordinary access to the White House enjoyed by Schmidt’s firm suggests that Google’s reach, and by extension Schmidt’s, has extended far beyond traditional politics and lobbying. The presence of former Google employees in the White House and the influence of its top executives have allowed Google to become embedded in the fabric and execution of policymaking.
Civis’ significance in helping push Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative, healthcare reform, established Google’s Schmidt as a critical ally not only on the president’s re-election campaign, but in helping the president push his top policy priorities as well.
The unusual arrangement—the president’s former campaign staffers, paid by a chief corporate ally of the president to work on his pet political projects—raises a host of questions.
Is President Obama indebted to Eric Schmidt and Google for helping rescue his signature domestic policy achievement from its disastrous rollout? How were they paid for this, and other work conducted for the White House? At least one Civis employee, Gabriel Burt, appears to have been paid as a subcontractor to QSSI.xxi Were all Civis employees paid in this way?
Was any work conducted under contract to Enroll America, a nonprofit bankrolled partly by private companiesxxii and run by former White House officials? Was it financed by the Democratic political campaigns that hired Civis? Or was the work, in effect, a gift to the president by Eric Schmidt? Answers to these questions would help disentangle the thicket of public and private interests that worked on the White House’s top policy priority at that time.
Did Civis’ technical work on HealthCare.gov give Google access to consumers’ personal data? Did this work run afoul of the HIPAA privacy act that seeks to protect patient health information and medical data?
In January 2015, the Associated Press reported that the HealthCare.gov website was quietly sending consumers’ personal data to companies including Google and several of its business units, such as DoubleClick and YouTube, that require data for advertising and marketing.xxiii
The close involvement of Google engineers and Eric Schmidt’s company in revamping the site raises questions over whether they or others inserted the code to send personal data to tracking websites.
i Data compiled from FEC, ProPublica, InfluenceExplorer.com, & IRS 527 records
v https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/disclosures/visitor-recordsUIN#: U87015, U92726
vii Enroll America, a non-profit headed by former White House staffer Anne Filipic, was tasked with signing-up people for the new heathcare exchanges. It was funded in the “tens of millions” by political groups like Families USA, insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturershttp://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2166770-1,00.html
xvi Dickerson, who had taken a leave from the company in 2012 to build the campaign’s election day turnout software happened to be visiting Civis’ Chicago office on October 11, when Park called seeking the company’s help with the HealthCare.gov website.
xvii https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/disclosures/visitor-records(UIN# U35197)
xviii https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/disclosures/visitor-records(UIN# U36041)
xix Meeting data also shows Wagner meeting with the White House’s Ben Sweezy, who led OMB’s government-wide implementation of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) and meeting on six separate occasions with the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
xx https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/disclosures/visitor-records(UIN# U52474, U64536, U78332, U19429, U59590)