The 'documented disaster' of HealthCare.gov and 6 more thoughts from President Obama

In an interview with Fast Company, President Barack Obama discussed technology in the federal government, including its problems and potential solutions.

Here are six key thoughts from President Obama on the state of technology in the country.

On the federal government approaching technology like a startup: "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?" 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."

On the impetus for enhancing federal technology initiatives: "With all the crises we were dealing with — the economy collapsing, the auto industry on the verge of collapse, winding down wars — [emphasis on technology and IT] did not get the kind of laser-focused attention until HealthCare.gov, 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.'"

On bringing private sector talent to the public sector: "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."

On balancing essential government duties and innovation: "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.

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."

On how traditional thinking flubbed HealthCare.gov: "Part of the problem with HealthCare.gov 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 HealthCare.gov."

On connecting citizens to government through policy: "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."

To read the full interview, click here.

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