“The country needs you.”
Those words grab your attention, no matter who says them. But when it’s the sitting President of the United States, on a stage speaking directly to thousands of technologists and innovators, they take on elevated meaning.
On March 11th, Barack Obama became the first President ever to attend the 30-year old SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. With no venue large enough to accommodate the entire 34,000 conference attendees, organizers held a ticket lottery and a couple thousand lucky souls lined up hours ahead of time to submit themselves to Secret Service security checks. That’s the cost of entry to spend an hour with the President.
As it turned out, the guest of honor was delayed in arriving, as he made a spontaneous stop at the legendary Torchy’s taqueria. The tacos he sampled were aptly named the “Republican,” the “Democrat,” and the “Independent.” When he did arrive, the President was greeted by a standing ovation.
Interviewed by Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, the President made clear from the very beginning that he was on a mission.
“So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”
The President acknowledged that the launch of Healthcare.gov had not gone swimmingly. But instead of dwelling on the failure, he focused on the success of the response to it – a small team comprised of Presidential Innovation Fellows, White House staff, and techies recruited from the private sector – which showed how well government technology could work when a more modern approach to was adopted.
“And what we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping across agencies. We’ve dubbed that the U.S. Digital Service. And we’ve got some of the top talent from…all the top tech companies. These folks are coming in, in some cases, for six months, in some cases for two years – and they are making an enormous difference in making sure that veterans are getting services on time, fixing outdated systems, making sure that agencies like the Small Business Administration that has been clunky, is redesigning itself so that if an entrepreneur wants to start up a business here in Texas, that they can go to one spot and within a day they’ve handled all the regulatory red tape that used to require them maybe months to navigate.
Now, the folks who are working in this Digital Service, they’re having a great time, and in part because they are harnessing incredible skills to a purpose where they know that millions of people can be helped. And what they’ll tell me is that as long as they feel that they’ve got a President and somebody who’s providing some air cover, there’s no system that they can’t get in there and work and change and make it significantly better.
So part of my job is to try to institutionalize that over the next several years. And I want to make sure that the next President and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode and we’re constantly bringing in new talent and new ideas to solve some of these big problems. It can be done. It requires some effort, but everything requires some effort.
We want to create a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent that is helping to shape the government.”
While the interview also covered hot-button issues such as encryption and the current standoff between certain tech companies and certain law enforcement agencies, this message of civic engagement – a call for techies to step up to the big challenges facing society – was the reason that the President had come to SXSW.
Ten months of a presidency is a precious little amount time.
In 2012, with ten months to go in the first term of this Administration, then-Chief Technology Officer of the Unites States Todd Park and I – in my prior role as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the White House – launched an experimental program that we named the Presidential Innovation Fellows. At the time, we did what we could to evangelize the message that outsiders could indeed have significant impact, that a diversity of skills and perspectives would be a strength. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program grew into a digital services agency called 18F and then a government-wide digital services movement that has proven that the best people and the best practices of the tech industry can indeed make government better. In fact, in the 21st century, they are necessary to make government better.
In 2016, with ten months remaining in his final term, as President Obama is described in the press as a “lame duck” and the legislative branch debates whether or not to consider his judicial nominees, he chose to use some of his remaining time in office to take up the message of civic engagement himself, to ensure that thousands of Americans with valuable skills are fully aware of the growing number of ways that they can use those skills for good.
At SXSW, the President delivered his message, crisp and clear, to an attentive and receptive audience: “The country needs you.”