Obama's reformers place their faith in technology.
On Jan. 14, amidst a stubborn economic crisis, two overseas wars, a long-running health care debate on Capitol Hill and a burgeoning tragedy in Haiti, President Obama convened a meeting of senior federal officials and corporate leaders at the White House. The event, however, had nothing to do with any of those burning issues. Rather, its subject was, by comparison, a bit more prosaic: modernizing government.
This marked the first time Obama held an administration-sanctioned event on improving federal management. And it's no surprise that the forum was specifically focused, as the White House noted, on "ways to use technology to streamline government operations, improve customer service and maximize returns on information technology investments."
As Aliya Sternstein reports in our cover story, Obama has placed his faith in a series of tech-savvy executives to run key initiatives and organizations. What they have in common is an inherent belief in the power of technology to transform the way government works.
Under the Obama administration, for the first time government has both a chief technology officer and a chief information officer. Other key information technology positions across government have been filled by executives with deep public and private sector experience in the field.
But the focus on technology as an enabler of change extends well beyond traditionally techie positions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hired Alec Ross, who founded One Economy Corporation to bring Internet service to disadvantaged areas, as a special adviser. Scott Gould, a former IBM official, is now deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs. He led a panel discussion at the White House forum on using technology to streamline government processes.
Of course, these newly minted appointees could ultimately be in for a reality check on the transformative power of technology. After all, it's been an article of faith in Washington for at least two decades that if government only would follow the technological lead of the private sector, huge gains in productivity and performance would follow.
The problem is that sudden, dramatic shifts in governmental capability haven't materialized. There has been slow, steady progress in technological improvement, enabling agencies to take on a variety of new responsibilities without substantial increases in staff. And in some areas, such as electronic health records at VA, government has led the way.
Efforts to leverage technology in the federal sector have been overshadowed by horror stories of areas where technology efforts have fallen short. That doesn't seem to deter Obama administration officials. Their hope is that the era of effective information management is just dawning in the federal sector.