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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Obama: I’ll ‘Yank Government’ Into Changing Its Ways

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Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama is convinced that in his time left in office, he can transform an “ossified” and “stuck” federal government into a sleeker, more agile operation that works smoothly with Silicon Valley to bring the latest technology to bear to improve people’s lives.

In a Q&A with Fast Company published Monday, Obama defended federal managers and employees, saying “the federal government is full of really smart people, with a lot of integrity, who work really hard and do some incredible stuff.” The problem, he said, is that government’s systems for purchasing and implementing new technologies have been “terrible:”

You 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.

Obama said he learned about the importance of information technology in his 2008 campaign, but once he took office, the effects of the Great Recession, the near-collapse of the auto industry and winding down two wars overseas diverted attention from upgrading federal systems until after the Healthcare.gov disaster.

The president said he should have known personally the health website implementation wasn’t going to work:

It’s something, by the way, I should have caught, I should have anticipated: That you couldn’t use traditional procurement mechanisms in order to build something that had never been built before and was pretty complicated. So part of what we’re going to have to do is just change culture, change administrative habits, and get everybody thinking in a different way.

The goal, he said, is to use organizations such as the U.S. Digital Service to bring in a recurring pipeline of top technologists from the private sector for one- to two-year stints in federal agencies to teach federal employees how to buy and implement cutting-edge systems.  “I think where they’re having more of an impact,” he said, “is in their interactions with the agencies, and the IT teams at the VA, or at HUD, or some of these huge organizations that contain a lot of excellent people but have been so stifled sometimes by this rule, or this statute, or this traditional approach to how we do something.”

Ultimately, Obama says, such efforts can be “transformative—not only in terms of people getting better service or government being more efficient, but in changing people’s attitudes about government.”

“It’s no secret that many people feel alienated and distant from government,” he said. “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.”

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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