At South by Southwest, DOT’s ‘Secretary Pete’ Points To Federal IT Priorities

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Union Station in Washington, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Buttigieg met with transit and rail workers, as well as officials from Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Maryland Transit Ad

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Union Station in Washington, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Buttigieg met with transit and rail workers, as well as officials from Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Maryland Transit Ad AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

He’d like to help make the 2020s ‘a turning point in the story of American transportation.’

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg articulated on Thursday his aims to help revitalize the federal workforce and put data and equity at the center of department decision-making.

“There's a combination of things happening right now, which added up together I think are a once-in-a-century opportunity—and a once-in-a-century imperative—to do big things,” Buttigieg said during a keynote session at the South by Southwest festival.

Though this year’s talk was virtual, for the former South Bend, Indiana mayor, it marked an opportunity to return to the SXSW stage. The festival was cancelled in 2020 due to the modern pandemic, but Buttigieg spoke at the event the last time it was live in 2019, during his presidential run. 

In 2021, the former Democratic candidate previously known as Mayor Pete took the digital stage with MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart, to reflect on his new title “Secretary Pete.” He’s the first out member of the LBGTQ+ community to serve as a cabinet secretary and the youngest member of the president’s cabinet. 

“When I leave this job, whenever that is, I want to be able to look back and say that my presence here helped to make the 2020s a turning point in the story of American transportation,” Buttigieg said during the keynote. He added that he aimed for the sector to be “an equitable source of opportunity” and to make it “known as the forefront of the solutions to climate change in our country.”

Buttigieg enters the Transportation Department as transit agencies, airlines, and other modes' revenue streams have been crushed by the low ridership as a result of COVID-19. The recently passed American Rescue Plan provides more than $40 billion to help them recover. He noted that so much money presents a challenge to the agency to ensure it’s all well-spent, but DOT has a “fantastic staff and so many career employees here who know how to make sure that that happens.”

In the shadow of the pandemic, he’s still keeping an eye on innovation. Contemporary technological capabilities and the massive volumes of information the department is privy to, Buttigieg said, present a wealth of opportunity.

“I'm like a kid in a candy store in this department because it's full of fellow nerds who have access to and custody of incredible amounts of data, which can help us solve a lot of questions and help us make better decisions. To be honest, I'm still getting my arms around some of the resources and assets that we have in this department,” he explained. “What I can tell you is that data is going to be increasingly vital to making good decisions about transportation and we have ways of using the data that weren't available before.”

Access to good information is particularly important to inform choices around safety and the climate, he noted. “And also circling back to equity,” Buttigieg added, “we need to do a better job of counting up who wins and who loses when a transportation decision is made.” In this role, he said he will prioritize addressing equitable access to transportation for communities that have suffered from systemic racism.

He reflected on decades-old highway construction through “Black or brown neighborhoods that didn't have the political power to resist,” and transportation routes built to shut out certain people.

“These are things that are physically in our system everywhere, and unlike a lot of other patterns of exclusion—when they are literally in the concrete—they're very hard to reverse,” he explained. “It's one of the reasons why we're reinvigorating the Office of Civil Rights here at the Department of Transportation, which as you might imagine, did not get a lot of resources or attention during the Trump administration.”

Buttigieg also spent much of the conversation considering how and expressing intent to help confront the agency’s climate change footprint. He further emphasized the importance of not missing a chance to visualize and execute on what U.S. infrastructure needs to look like in the 21st century.

By some present estimates, he noted, China is investing more on infrastructure than the U.S. and Europe combined.

“That amounts to a strategic advantage,” Buttigieg said. “If we don't want to see that become permanent, then we've got to fix our roads and bridges, we've got to upgrade our national airspace, we've got to have passenger rail worthy of the leading economy—and we've got to make sure that our vehicles are cleaner, greener, safer, and that people have alternatives to even getting into vehicles at all.”

Among a range of other priorities he highlighted in the hour-long chat, the secretary said one that’s “been on his mind a lot” is the federal workforce. 

“I will tell you from my time in this building already, the quality and the purpose that just animates the people who work in this department is extraordinary. But we need more coming up the ranks,” he noted. Internally assessing the makeup of the department, Buttigieg said his team recently found “first of all that, while it's again, a phenomenal workforce here ... it is whiter and much more male than the country as a whole.” 

“The other thing I found out is that in our staff—among the people who work in this department on [information technology]—1% are under the age of 30,” he noted. 

With that in mind, Buttigieg said it will be important for his department and others to create more flexibility for personnel to move in and out of the federal government. An incentive worth highlighting, he added, is that at the Transportation Department officials can impact the nation through literally shaping how people and goods are going to move around it.

“I want to see the kinds of people who went to NASA in the 60s, or Silicon Valley in the 90s, to be coming into public service in the 2020s,” Buttigieg said. “Because the American project is on the line and we need great people in every corner of this federal enterprise.”