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Obama to Techies: Uncle Sam Needs You

President Barack Obama speaks during the opening day of South By Southwest at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, March 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas.

President Barack Obama speaks during the opening day of South By Southwest at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, March 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas. // Rich Fury/AP

President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the South by Southwest Interactive Festival last week -- the tech confab held since 1987 -- making a high-profile pitch for more technologists to join government.

During an onstage Q&A, Obama touched on the role of government and the balance between security and privacy when it comes to encryption. But he turned over much of his talk to a recruiting appeal for the U.S. Digital Service, the White House tech team dispatched across government agencies to patch up off-track tech projects.

"The reason I'm here, really, is to recruit all of you,” Obama told the crowd. “It's to say to you as I'm about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we're facing today.”

Obama established the U.S. Digital Service in August 2014, to revamp the “big and the bloated and the frustrating” IT projects -- the glitchy launch of being exhibit A -- that often bedevil the federal government, Obama said.

The White House team is staffed by some of the same elite techies who helped repair the health care website, including former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson.

"We had to bring in a SWAT team of all my friends from Silicon Valley and from Austin -- some of the best software engineers in the world to come in and fix it,” Obama said, adding, “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."

Since its launch, Obama has proposed incubating individual fix-it tech units in the 24 largest federal agencies across government. A similar tech team at the General Services Administration, known as 18F, is also working to revamp the way the federal government delivers digital services.

"We've got some of the top talent from Google, from Facebook, from all the top tech companies,” Obama said. “These folks are coming in -- in some cases, for six months; in some cases for two years -- and they are making an enormous difference in making sure that veterans are getting services on time, fixing outdated systems,” and redesigning “clunky” processes, he added.

Still, there are lingering questions about whether the Silicon Valley-to-D.C. tech pipeline can be sustained beyond the Obama administration.

“Sadly, I see USDS being archived with much of the rest of the Obama administration,” wrote Mike Kruger, who’s in charge of digital engagement at the Commerce Department, in a blog post earlier this year. “No candidate for president has spoken about it and with such a strong Obama fingerprint, it won’t be in the next administration’s best interest to keep it.”

For his part, Obama said the new digital recruits will keep coming “as long as they feel that they've got a president and somebody who's providing some air cover.” He added: “Part of my job is to try to institutionalize that over the next several years. And I want to make sure that the next president and the federal government from here on out is in constant improvement mode and we're constantly bringing in new talent and new ideas to solve some of these big problems."

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