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President Obama: The Fast Company Interview

In an exclusive and wide-ranging conversation, the President explains his take on Washington's technology problems—and his solutions.

President Obama: The Fast Company Interview

President Obama
in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2015.

Fast Company: From the outside, looking at all the different things that your digital teams are doing, it can feel diffuse, because it is dispersed. What are the overarching goals here?

President Barack Obama: If you think of a startup, you figure out, Is there something big enough that is worthwhile doing? How do you get the best people on board? How are you going to make sure that you’re serving your customer out there well? And what we’ve tried to do with the U.S. digital team—and our whole conception of technology generally—is to identify some big projects that will impact a lot of people. Because of this upgrade in technology, in delivery systems, in data . . . x million people are getting their veterans benefits faster. Or x hundreds of thousands of people are getting their green cards processed more efficiently. Or x thousands of small businesses are having their loans processed more effectively.

Although it’s true that this is something that we hope ultimately will touch all of government, we know there are very specific ­areas where, if we leverage the best technology teams in the world and we pair them up with some really effective government managers, then we can get a really big payoff.

Do you have a vision where it all comes together and turns into something bigger?

You know, the federal government is full of really smart people, with a lot of integrity, who work really hard and do some incredible stuff. And it’s on par with the private sector on all those measures. But technology [has been] terrible. And for me, given that our campaigns both in 2008 and 2012 were built on being at the very cutting edge of social media and technology and empowering people and speed and nimbleness, to see how lumbering this thing was, that was pretty distressing.

So I started working fairly quickly to say, This wasn’t good enough, how do we make it better? We started putting more emphasis on technology and IT in each department. But I’ll be honest with you. With all the crises we were dealing with—the economy collapsing, the auto industry on the verge of collapse, winding down wars—this did not get the kind of laser-focused attention until ­, which was a well-­documented disaster, but ended up anyways being the catalyst for us saying, "Okay, we have to completely revamp how we do things." The results there were so outstanding, and because we discovered that there are folks at Google and Facebook and Twitter and all these amazing firms who really wanted to find some way to engage in public service—and many of them could afford to do so because they had done very well . . .

To go back to your original question, 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 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.

And that can be transformative—not only in terms of people getting better service or government being more efficient, but in changing people’s attitudes about government.

President Obama, with Fast Company editor-in-chief Robert Safian

So the stakes here are making the government more competent, more efficient, more impactful?

Absolutely. Well, look, here’s what we know historically: That societies where there is no effective functioning government don’t do very well. ­Societies where government is all-consuming and quashes the private sector, they don’t do very well either. What you want is a partnership between a robust market-based system where people are innovating, and it’s dynamic, and things are moving fast, but you also want a government that makes sure roads are built and schools are teaching the next generation what they need to know and are willing to invest in things like basic research that serve as the foundation for private sector success and discovery . . . and has enough basic rules of the road so they aren’t spilling a bunch of sludge into the water, and the air is breathable. And, you know, our private sector thrives because we historically have had a very effective government. Now, over the last several years that has become more ossified and stuck. And it hasn’t kept pace with changes in technology. And part of what we’re doing here is to yank government—upgrade it, patch it, and ultimately transform it so that it is responsive and can interface with this new private sector in a much more effective way.

Are there things you have learned from having these technologists around?

Well, it’s probably not as much of a culture clash for me, for the reason I mentioned earlier: Our campaign was built around these guys. We were some of the first users of Facebook, MySpace. I had a bunch of 23- and 25-year-olds, tinkering around, and the next thing you knew they had created some new application and they’d explain to me how it was working and why it was that eight people in Idaho without any staff or direction had suddenly organized a 15,000-person meeting. Right? And I started paying attention.

And so I was pretty familiar with—and pretty comfortable with—working with our tech folks. I think where they’re having more of an impact is in their interactions with the agencies, and the IT teams at the VA, or at HUD, or some of these huge organizations that contain a lot of excellent people but have been so stifled sometimes by this rule, or this statute, or this traditional approach to how we do something. And so, part of the reason why we’ve been successful so far is I have essentially provided air cover for these teams because I can call up the secretary of transportation, or HUD, or the Small Business Administration, and say, "I want this to happen. And I don’t want us to find a reason not to do it just because it hasn’t been done before. And I want us to bring together a team to be as creative as possible."

And by loosening up some of those constraints, our team then can come in and, I think, be really successful. So that’s been more than anything the adjustment. I think there are some things we’re going to have to institutionalize to take full advantage of some of those changes in culture. And probably the best example is how we have, in the federal government, purchased IT generally. Part of the problem with was not that we didn’t have a lot of hardworking people paying attention to it, but traditionally the way you purchase IT services, software, and programs is by using the same procurement rules and specification rules that were created in the 1930s . . . What we know is, the best designs and best programs are iterative: You start out with, "What do you want to accomplish?" The team starts to brainstorm and think about it, and ultimately you come up with something and you test it. And that’s not how we did

It’s something, by the way, I should have caught, I should have anticipated: That you couldn’t use traditional procurement mechanisms in order to build something that had never been built before and was pretty complicated. So part of what we’re going to have to do is just change culture, change administrative habits, and get everybody thinking in a different way.

Arguably the next killer app for tech would be online voting. That’s a state and local issue, but I wondered whether you think that it’s something that should be a priority for technologists?

Absolutely. So we’ve been talking about the U.S. digital team, and a lot of this is: How do we deliver services better to customers? But there are other aspects of this process that we are trying to ­develop. We want technology to help shape policy. Think about our big data projects. We know that in the same way that the National Weather Service or the development of GPS and satellites created entire new ways that people organized their lives, that in health care, for example, there are going to be transformations taking place because of the ability to collect and analyze data and then transmit it in very individualized fashion to people.

And so in our policy making, we’re trying to make sure that insights and knowledge coming out of tech are informing how we think about regulations, how we think about opportunities to solve big challenges. But there is a third part of this. And that is: How do people engage and relate to their government? You know, 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.

Some of it is as simple as giving people quick, easy access to information about how taxpayer money is spent, or improving transparency, or being able to navigate a site easily. But eventually, what we should also be thinking about is, How can technology enhance the experience of democracy? How can we make it easier to vote? How can we make it easier for like-minded citizens to petition their government in a way that is meaningful? And so, a lot of what we’re doing now, I believe, is just scratching the surface of potential. And I look at my daughters, who are, as every teenage kid is today, completely fluent in technology and social media. They might not go to a town hall meeting physically, the way their grandmother might have around some issue, and sit through a two-hour debate. Because they’re just used to things moving faster. But we can imagine creating a corollary process for them that is consistent with how they interact generally. We can think of apps that promote engagement and the power of people.

Their expectations are different, and how they build communities are different. They might be less geographically based. So that’s stuff that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about as well. And this is not something that I believe will be done in two years, by the end of my term. The most important thing we’re doing is building a pipeline, a set of traditions, in which really smart folks from the private sector can come in, and hopefully a tradition whereby the president recognizes what a powerful tool that is and is providing them the space to do their thing. When I’m out of government, I’ll continue to be working on promoting social change and building platforms and engines for social change, and I think the experiences I’ve had here will enhance that. But this is something that all of us in every level of public life should be thinking about. Because ultimately our goal is—or should be—to make "we the people" mean something in a 21st-century context. And I think this is part of that process.

[Photo: Daniel Shea for Fast Company, President Obama photographed in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2015.]

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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