White House seeks tech advice from corporate chiefs

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010

The federal government has corporate envy.

So the Obama administration has invited dozens of the nation's top executives to the White House on Thursday seeking tips on how the federal bureaucracy can become leaner and meaner. That means thinking of ways to cut costs and getting federal agencies to place a higher priority on better serving the public, in areas including immigration, education and the census.

White House officials are hoping to use new technologies, such as the Web and text messaging, to make that all happen. But the private sector's entrepreneurial zeal may not translate so easily to federal agencies. For example, the Census Bureau spent $600 million on a project to make its 2010 count electronic, but the effort failed and the census will be conducted by paper this year.

"We see a big gap in technology from the private sector and the federal government in terms of productivity and service quality," said Jeffrey Zients, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management.

Zients, federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said in a group interview Wednesday that they invited executives from various industries who have demonstrated excellence in cost management, customer service, and the use of high-tech tools to achieve those ends.

One challenge facing the administration is that federal workers aren't motivated by the shareholder pressures and corporate bonuses of the private sector.

Some executives said that agencies want to perform well so their budgets aren't cut.

"Governments have budget constraints that provide plenty of motivation to cut costs and create efficiencies," said Time Warner chief executive Jeffrey L. Bewkes. "They need to have access to the new best practices developed through competition by industry. That is the idea here and what industry can offer the public sector."

Attendees are expected to include Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Sprint Nextel chief executive Dan Hesse, PepsiCo chief executive Indra K. Nooyi, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

The executives will break out into three working groups and then present their ideas to all attendees, including Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, and Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The government has started to implement some of the administration's ideas. It's cut nearly a dozen information technology contracts that appeared wasteful. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is using text messages to inform applicants for citizenship when their paperwork moves through the seven steps of the application process.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company