Obama pitch to tech-heads: help make government work better

By The Mandarin

Monday March 14, 2016

The United States’ first social media president made an unprecedented trip to the festival of digital creativity this weekend to recruit technologists to help make the federal government work better.

Barack Obama skipped the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan to keep his date with the geeks of South by Southwest, an annual festival of interactive entertainment and development in Austin, Texas. An hour-long conversation centred on the role of technology in government and the need for partnership with the tech sector to deliver 21st century solutions for citizens.

Obama successfully tapped social networks to win over millennials in two election campaigns for president and has wired the White House with digital know-how to enhance engagement and service delivery. Obama’s digital chief said this week it will be one of the great legacies of the administration.

In his weekly address to the nation before travelling to Texas last week, Obama talked about the relationship the government has forged with private enterprise — hiring key talent from the likes of Facebook and Google — to drive new digital solutions:

“On my campaign in 2008, we saw how technology could bring people together and help them engage as citizens in their own communities.  So when I came to the White House, I wanted apply that experience to the federal government. It hasn’t always been easy. And we’ve had some bumps along the way.

“But we’ve also made good progress. Over the past few years, for example, we’ve done something that government never has. We asked some of the sharpest minds from companies in Silicon Valley and across the country to come help us modernise the federal government for the way we live today. And they came ready to serve, tackling some of our biggest challenges — like high-tech special ops units.

“These teams are partnering with the government’s existing policy and technical experts to re-imagine the way we do business and deliver services that work better and cost less. Already, we’ve made it easier for students to find the college that’s right for them. For immigrants to track the green card and naturalisation process online. For veterans to access their medical records. And yes, after an initial false start, we’ve made it much easier for tens of millions of Americans to compare and buy health insurance and the peace of mind that goes with it.”

In Texas, Obama was pressed on privacy and technology encryption in the wake of a looming war with Apple to access data from a terrorist’s iPhone. He called on software and device makers to strike a balance:

“My conclusion so far is that you cannot take an absolutist view on this. So if your argument is strong encryption no matter what, and we can and should, in fact, create black boxes, that I think does not strike the kind of balance that we have lived with for 200, 300 years and it is fetishising our phones above every other value. That can’t be the right answer.

“I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how do we create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for a subset of issues that we agree are important.”

Jason Goldman, the White House’s chief digital officer, says digital engagement is now core to the Oval Office. In a post on Medium over the weekend, he wrote:

“This story is not about the transformative power of technology, but a way of governing that empowers people to find the ‘imperative of citizenship’. Giving people a voice, enabling them to be heard, and working with them to solve big problems is the animating principle of President Obama’s campaign and the core of his presidency …

“When it puts users first, [technology] enables Americans to find their voice, for our government to deliver better services, and make our country more just. The chance to be part of this work — to build a more user-centered government — has inspired talented people to serve our country in new ways … Working together with talent across the federal government, these teams helped to codify a user-centered focus in digital services. The work they’re doing is impactful — and it’s hard to see how they don’t become a permanent features of our government. Indeed, this might be President Obama’s most important accomplishment as the First Tech President: establishing a lasting legacy of service that will carry on long after he leaves office.”

Goldman cites a number of digital engagement projects achieved by the White House, including:

  • Simplifying student aid by making the application form simpler and more efficient;
  • Helping students prepare for college with a new College Scorecard;
  • Giving people access to their health information through new online platform Blue Button; and
  • Improving the immigration process through digital form processing.

The administration also established We The People, an open petition platform. And this weekend it launched the Opportunity Project, a “new open data effort to improve economic mobility for all Americans”.

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