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TechTank

Obama’s three ideas to improve digital public services

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In a recent exclusive interview, President Obama discussed the efforts his administration has made to improve digital services in the federal government. The Obama administration has placed a priority on improving the government IT capacity through a variety of programs and initiatives including Federal Agency Digital Service Teams, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows. The president discussed his frustrations and hopes for how the government can better leverage technology.

Procurement policies need an update

The president argued that antiquated procurement rules hinder the government’s adoption of information technology (IT). For example, he identifies those policies as partially contributing to the challenge of launching healthcare.gov. Developing such a complex and unique platform required an iterative design process with software testing built into every step. This approach to design does not match well with the restrictions on procurement.

Willingness to break tradition

The president also contended that the confidence of federal workers in unique technical solutions is important. Generally, the public views federal agencies as ossified and unwilling to adopt new approaches, the president in particular pointed to the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development as organizations that may feel “stifled” by an interpretation of the law or regulation. Shedding this mindset is a necessary step to improving the IT capacity of agencies focused on the status quo.

Building a talent pipeline

A key challenge in improving digital services of the federal government is securing highly skilled workers. The economy has created a strong demand for computer scientists and engineers, which secures them generous salaries. Instead of hiring an expensive army of coders the president proposed another approach to hiring the necessary employees to implement his digital agenda. The president suggested that, “if we are able through the U.S. digital team to recruit a baseline of talent and create a ­pipeline—on a regular basis, top technology folks are cycling in for a one- or two-year stint, making a difference and improving the lives of veterans or improving our education system, or just making sure that [the] social security network is operating efficiently. And if we build that culture of service, then, what I do believe will happen is the government as a whole will start thinking about its relationship to citizens differently.”

Perhaps most remarkable were the president’s comments about how technology can improve the quality of our democracy. President Obama argued, “Our constitutional design is remarkable; it has lasted for many years. But it’s no secret that many people feel alienated and distant from government. And I think the opportunities for us to think about how tech can empower citizens and make them feel ownership for their government is really important.”

Authors

J

Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution

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