AUSTIN, Texas — President Barack Obama made a plea to the crowd at the South By Southwest Interactive Conference Friday: Come help the government solve its technology problems.
In a conversation with Texas Tribune Editor-In-Chief Evan Smith, Obama touted the novel ways his administration has reached out to the technology community, while asking for more to follow in the path laid by groups like the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration’s 18F.
“The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you,” Obama said. “It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office — ‘How can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, and new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today?'”
Obama spoke for approximately 30 minutes, mentioning how the Healthcare.gov website failure kickstarted his work to overhaul the way the government harnesses modern technology.
“This was a little embarrassing for me because I was the cool early adaptor president, and my entire campaign had been premised on having really cool technology and social media and all that,” Obama said.
Then, he plucked Mikey Dickerson out of Silicon Valley to save Healthcare.gov and stand up the U.S. Digital Service.
“The folks who are working in [USDS], they’re having a great time,” Obama said. “Now what they’ll tell me is that as long as they feel that they’ve got a president and somebody who is providing some air cover, there’s no system they can’t get in there and change and make it significantly better.”
The conversation comes after the administration has spent the past week rolling out a number of tech-minded initiatives, from open data tools that give the public new ways to measure up their communities to a new partnership with online retailer Jet that makes diapers affordable for low-income families to a new draft policy that aims to make federal source code open source and reusable within agencies.
In a preview posted to the White House blog Friday, Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman said Obama has spent his administration using technology to help people successfully engage with their government.
“This story is not about the transformative power of technology, but a way of governing that empowers people to find the ‘imperative of citizenship,'” Goldman wrote. “Giving people a voice, enabling them to be heard, and working with them to solve big problems is the animating principle of President Obama’s campaign and the core of his presidency.”
While tech efforts like USDS have gotten a lot of positive press, it remains to be seen if the administration’s work resonates with the greater tech community. According to a poll conducted by SXSW organizers, there still may be a disconnect.
Done in conjunction with Edelman public relations firm, a survey of nearly 900 SXSW attendees found that 61 percent have more faith in technology-based solutions than policy-driven ones to address societal problems. More than two-thirds of respondents also believe private and encrypted data should not be shared with the government.
Conversely, Obama rebuked the tech community for building great technology platforms that can immediately hail car service or share video with the world while voting is stuck decades behind the times.
“We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote,” Obama said. “You’re laughing, but it’s sad. We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote, and it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the most important task of a democracy.”
While he did not specifically weigh in on the Apple vs. FBI encryption standoff in the fight over information possibly contained on an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, he did address the each side’s stances. Obama expressed support for strong encryption but also the need for the government to examine property if it possesses a warrant to do so.
“We’ve got two values, both of which are important, and the question we now have to ask is if, technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, how do we solve or disrupt a terror plot, what mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement,” Obama said. “Because if in fact government can’t get in, then everyone is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket so there has to be some concession to the need to get into that somehow.”
However, Obama’s recruitment call comes with the realization that how well citizens can interact with their agencies online can influence how they feel about the government overall.
“Anti-government sentiment grows when people have a hard time interacting with government services,” Obama said.
He added that, while he has made technology a key part of his second term, he has a finite amount of time to change things.
“I want to underscore the fact that in 10 months I will not have this office. It has been the great privilege of my life, but it’s not like I stop caring about the stuff I care about right now,” Obama said. “I expect you to step up and get involved because the country needs you and if the brainpower and talent thats on display today.”