Lessons from the leader of the free world: put digital first


Looking back over seven years as the leader of the free world, what does United States President Barack Obama regret? Among other things, not putting digital first.

In a wide-ranging interview with sportswriter Bill Simmons in GQ magazine, released today, Obama speaks of the importance of the digital team he set up in the White House. But he admits he did it “too late”:

“You are on 24/7 — you have to respond immediately. The job of our office, to keep up and to respond quickly to anything that’s happening but not be consumed by it, is completely different. We’ve been building a digital team inside the White House …

“That’s an example of something that I would’ve started earlier. That was a lesson that coming out of the first term, I should’ve understood. That’s why we built this team …

“So it’s not just having to change how we do business inside the White House to react to stories, but also, how do we tell a story about issues to constituencies that are completely splintered, who don’t watch television in the same way, who don’t watch the news in the same way? In some ways we’re just laying the foundation for what I assume will be the standard practice of future presidents.”

Obama’s first run for the White House in 2008 revolutionised campaigning in the US, targeting voters through social media and digital marketing. But he says his team dropped the ball after inauguration:

“One thing I learned through some tough election cycles: you can’t separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And that’s particularly true now in this new communications era. I think that we were ahead of the curve in 2008 in social media and the internet and digital communications. When we came into office, instead of taking some of those lessons, we suddenly adapted ourselves to the White House press room and structures that had been built back in the 1940s and ’50s. As a consequence of those missteps early, we got the policies right, and that’s why the economy now has grown for five and a half straight years, six years, and why unemployment rates have gone from 10% to 5.1%. But there was a lot of political pain along the way that might not have been necessary.”

One of the drivers of Obama’s digital push, former White House chief information officer Vivek Kundra, talked of the importance of a citizen-first strategy on a trip to Australia earlier this year. He told The Mandarin‘s David Donaldson:

“If you look at most governments, they’re spending a lot of money on what I call systems of record — ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, supply chains, systems centred on databases and infrastructure — yet systems in the everyday lives of citizens, their customers, are far more sophisticated.

“They can use their mobile device to book a reservation to their favourite restaurant, catch a plane anywhere on the planet, or have a car pick them up and drop them off without exchanging any cash. So how do you close that technology gap when in everyday life citizens have an app for everything, yet when they deal with their government they have to hold on the phone, submit a paper form, or wait in a long line?

“That is a challenge for public sector leaders today. Managing and responding to citizens’ expectations that have been permanently reset by the private sector.”

So what would a greying Obama tell the black-haired younger man who took office in 2008? You have to sell the sizzle:

“I would probably tell myself to communicate more effectively early on than I did. We ran a great campaign. It wasn’t as great as it seems in retrospect — there’s always rose-colored glasses but there’s no doubt that we captured the country’s imagination. And somehow in those first two years, I think a certain arrogance crept in, in the sense of thinking as long as we get the policy ready, we didn’t have to sell it.”

Meanwhile, Obama reveals he hasn’t had a cigarette for five years, has a driving range in the bowels of the White House to relieve stress, will miss travelling on Air Force One most of all, and the top secret stuff “isn’t nearly as exciting as you expect”. Disappointing.

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