Some of the most memorable sound bites from President Barack Obama’s appearance on "The Daily Show” last week centered on government technology and the IT challenges faced by federal agencies.
Obama broached on the wave of Silicon Valley tech talent invading government, challenges in IT procurement and how better IT can lead to better customer service between the government’s 2 million employees and its 300 million-plus citizens.
The whole extended interview is worth a view, but below are the best Obama remarks on tech.
Responding to a question from "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart on shortfalls in delivery at the Department of Veteran Affairs, Obama said:
"Government works better now than it probably ever has given what we ask it to do. Across agencies, there have been all kinds of reforms and improvements and people there work hard and care about stuff deeply. What is true is if you have a government built on 1930s models and it’s not updated for decades, then there’s gonna be a gap in terms of what it is doing now relative to what some other folks do.”
Obama continued, calling out IT as perhaps the government’s biggest challenge in modernization.
“IT is probably the biggest example of that. We’re having to completely redesign how the government purchases IT services, how it does digital from soup to nuts, and part of it is how it’s been historically set up. You have these specifications that are this thick."
Clearly, Obama believes some measure of acquisition reform is necessary before government becomes agile – and truly adept – at purchasing IT.
He ended that note on a zinger.
“When I’m on a campaign and setting up Internet operations, I got four guys in T-shirts in a room and they’re figuring out how we do this thing. That’s not how government is set up.”
Obama also talked about understaffed and underfunded agencies like VA, which has a history of backlogged complaints from veterans and an assortment of management scandals. Stewart challenged Obama on VA’s failures, noting over $1 billion taxpayer dollars wasted in interoperability efforts between VA and the Defense Department. Eventually, both agencies ceased the integration of health records after the effort became too costly.
“You’ve got 2 million employees and you want this to be agile?” Stewart said. “The VA system, this is – you can’t find a better issue politically. You’ll find almost unanimous agreement that we’ve failed and need to do better, yet seven years into it.”
Obama’s response mimicked what agency heads across government have been saying for years about technology.
“If we’re undersourcing our government and not staffing the way it needs to be, we shouldn’t be surprised that there will be gaps,” Obama said.
Obama talked about the Silicon Valley types, like former Googler Mikey Dickerson, who now heads the United States Digital Service, who also served on the HealthCare.gov rescue team. Obama said he'd like to leave behind a technology legacy.
“Can we make stuff a lot better than it has been?” Obama said. “How do we make an SBA loan easier to get? How do we make sure this agency is more customer friendly? How do we make sure people can go to one website instead of 16 to find out information they need.
Digital experts are "spreading out throughout government and they are in fact systematically chipping away at some of these problems," Obama said. "By the time I leave here, we’re going to be able to say that government is working much better, much more efficiently, much more customer-friendly than when I came into office."