For the past two years, President Obama has worked behind the scenes to coax high-tech entrepreneurs to join the federal government. He has made personal calls to candidates who were on the fence about leaving Silicon Valley, and at times he has even adopted the lingo of some former Google and Twitter executives who now work in the West Wing.
On Friday, Obama came to the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin to make a much more public pitch to high-tech entrepreneurs.
“It’s not enough to just focus on the cool next thing,” Obama said in a “keynote conversation” with Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith at SXSW. “I will expect you to step up and get involved, because we need you.”
“So whatever your interests are, whatever your passions are, whatever your concerns are, we need you.”
The event marked the public debut of an initiative his administration has pursued since its inception but with increased intensity since the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov in the fall of 2013. And how it unfolds over the next 10 months will determine whether the president can substantially change the way the government functions before handing over the reins to his successor.
The botched rollout of the federal health insurance marketplace exposed myriad problems with the way federal officials commission and manage large technology projects. Obama and his top deputies are hoping to use their remaining time in office to prove that not only can the federal government close the gap between its operations and those in the private sector, but it also can provide the kind of user experience that Americans expect when they shop or run their own businesses.
Kristie Canegallo, the White House deputy chief of staff for implementation, said in an interview Thursday that the moment HealthCare.gov stumbled was “an inflection point” that prompted the administration to enlist more expertise from the outside and make updating federal technology a top priority. Mikey Dickerson, a site reliability engineer at Google who took a leave from his job to help fix HealthCare.gov, stayed on to head the U.S. Digital Service when it launched in August 2014.
“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,” Obama said, adding that he wanted to institutionalize a way to constantly improve government services. “Because an anti-government mentality grows if people feel frustrated because they’re not getting good service.”
The administration has begun to overhaul technology procurement practices and has created two separate divisions to tackle some of the most difficult problems. The first, in the General Services Administration, is called 18F — named after the agency’s location at 18th and F streets NW in Washington — and develops software in collaboration with specific agencies. The second is the U.S. Digital Service, which serves more of a consulting role on large, complex projects. The effort has won over some veteran federal employees but has encountered resistance from others.
The government has had success recruiting technical experts for limited “tours of duty” in the federal bureaucracy: There are more than 300 people who have already served in this capacity, including 140 in the U.S. Digital Service. But the government’s security clearance requirements have been an impediment to attracting more talent. Ashkan Soltani, who was tapped to serve as a senior adviser to the president’s chief technology officer, Megan Smith, was recently denied a security clearance and returned to the private sector. Soltani had previously served as chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission and as a consultant to The Washington Post during the reporting on classified documents leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden.
Christopher Soghoian, who served as the FTC’s first in-house technologist between 2009 and 2010, praised entities such as 18F for helping ensure federal authorities were taking important, if belated, steps to safeguard citizens’ privacy when they interact with the government.
But Soghoian, who now works as the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist, said, “This insistence of everyone getting a security clearance — it’s really destructive.”
And Mirko Whitfield, who does international outreach for the conference and was in the audience, said he liked what Obama had to say but wondered if his call to action would have any effect. “People are bombarded all the time with all these very dramatic messages — yeah, you can say it to everyone, but how do you get people to actually do that?”
Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, was an “entrepreneur in residence” (“really, ‘nerd in residence,’ ” he explained in an email) at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He praised the administration for making such a dogged effort to shift the way the government approaches technology.
“For the last seven years, a bunch of agencies have asked for my advice on tech development and innovation, and I’ve gladly provided it, leading me to one big observation,” Newmark said in an email. “In Washington, the tech, itself, is relatively easy. Overcoming institutional inertia, that’s really, really hard.”
Several administration officials and outside experts interviewed over the past week echoed Newmark’s sentiment.
To change the way the government spends $50 billion a year on technology, for example, the administration must retool a duplicative and sprawling contracting process that has existed for decades.
Anne Rung became the U.S. chief acquisitions officer at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in September 2014, and in an interview she rattled off a list of statistics that help explain what’s wrong with the government’s traditional buying approach. There are 3,200 separate federal procurement offices across the globe with “very little collaboration” among them; numerous agencies have together awarded more than 10,000 contracts and delivery orders for laptops and personal computers; and there are 400 people on staff at the Social Security Administration to operate its COBOL computing platform, which dates to the 1960s.
Speaking in Austin, Obama said the federal approach to buying things “was adapted for the age when procurement was for buying boots or buying pencils or buying furniture as opposed to buying software.”
A couple of months ago, the OMB instructed agencies that they could not sign any new contracts to order personal computers and instead must buy them through one of three existing contracts. Since then, some vendors have dropped their prices by as much as 50 percent. There are 40 individual agency contracts totaling $74 million a year for the purchase of the geospatial software Esri, but the administration just shifted over to a single, government-wide contract.
The White House has focused on the agencies that interact most directly with ordinary Americans. Digital Service teams are now embedded in VA, Homeland Security and the Pentagon, and they consult with the Social Security Administration and three other agencies.
In fact, U.S. Digital Service Deputy Director Haley Van Dyck uses Homeland Security’s biggest technical failures as the starting point for one of her group’s major successes. After pursuing a decade-long, $1.2 billion project aimed at digitizing its records, applications and forms, by November contractors had not delivered a single viable product.
The Digital Service team embedded with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and within three months they had helped make the filing and processing of Form I-90 — which allows for the renewal and replacement of a green card — electronic.
“One of the hardest questions we face is: How do you change the culture in this incredibly risk-averse environment we practice in?” Van Dyck said.
Mike DeBonis in Austin contributed to this report.