By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The administration began a Web program Tuesday that eliminates red tape in the immigration process by allowing applicants to follow their status via text message and e-mail. It is the latest example of how President Obama and his advisers are bringing the technological innovations of his 2008 campaign to the federal bureaucracy.
Administration officials said they also are developing a central method for Americans to receive government emergency information, consumer product recalls and other alerts electronically. The administration recently compiled all data from various federal agencies onto one Web site, Data.gov, and employed new technologies used by private businesses to run the government-sponsored "Cash for Clunkers" auto trade-in program.
Obama created two positions -- chief information officer and chief technology officer -- to try to make government more efficient. Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer, said efforts such as the new electronic immigration status system and Data.gov site are "fundamentally changing the default of the public sector" to make it more transparent. "You're seeing a result of a transparent and open government the president talked about," Kundra said.
Under the old immigration system, applicants had to call U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to get status updates, chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra said.
"There are cases where you are asked to give a fingerprint," he said. "If you today say the fingerprint didn't take, you don't really have a direct channel of alerts to let you know that it didn't quite work. So you may be left with the impression that you went in and did your thing and weeks went by."
Chopra continued: "Now with these alerts, instead of you having to call and check in on where we are, this will outbound that communication."
The program also will keep track of average processing times in each immigration field office and at various stages. "It creates the right pressure for transformation, so that you can ask intelligent questions as for why does it take half as long in one city or state than another," Kundra said.
Obama has long been an advocate for technology in government. As a U.S. senator, he passed a transparency bill with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), known as "Google for Government," that made public federal grants, contracts, loans and other documents. During his campaign, Obama used social networking and text messaging systems to organize supporters, provide rapid updates and raise money.
Since entering office, Obama and his advisers have tried to use technology to help streamline bureaucracy and make government programs more consumer-friendly. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel calls Chopra and Kundra "the McKinsey Kids," a reference to the blue-chip consulting company.
Transparency was a cornerstone of Obama's campaign, but despite advances, open-government advocates have voiced frustration in recent months that too little progress has been made.
With the Cash for Clunkers program, the administration used advanced technology from the private sector to allow consumers to receive subsidies -- for trading in older vehicles for fuel-efficient models -- at the time of purchase instead of weeks later through the mail.
Administration officials said the On Demand program, produced by Oracle, allowed Cash for Clunkers to keep running even as consumer interest in it rose in the initial days by more than 10 times the government's projections.
This summer, the administration announced an IT Dashboard site that provides data about how the U.S. government spends more than $76 billion on information technology, as well as statistics on which programs are on schedule or over budget. Since it began operating on June 30, the site has recorded more than 53 million hits, Kundra said.
He added: "For the first time, you are able to see how every single dollar is being spent."