Transformers

President Obama is convinced that in his time left in office, he can turn 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 an interview with Fast Company magazine published in June, 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,” he said. “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.”

These are heady days in the world of federal information technology. In addition to Fast Company, several other publications have chronicled the influx of Silicon Valley innovators into newly minted federal organizations such as the White House’s U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration’s 18F unit. They have come in the wake of the HealthCare.gov disaster to show government the way to a sleeker, more innovative future. 

“I think where they’re having more of an impact,” Obama 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.”

In the cover story of this issue, Jack Moore peels back the layers of the innovation invasion, exploring what will need to happen to move it from the upgrading and patching phase Obama describes to the transformation he seeks.

The Silicon saviors have done an impressive job so far, both in getting wayward major IT upgrades back on track and winning over world-weary and regulation-restricted federal managers to more agile and open approaches. But sustaining momentum will be tricky. After all, many of the innovators are here because they believe in effective government generally and the Obama administration in particular. 

To succeed, at least some of them will have to buy in for the long haul—and win the support of a skeptical, and tightfisted, Congress.

Obama says he believes that better leveraging technology can succeed in nothing less than changing people’s negative attitudes about government. That’s a lot to ask—especially in the year and a half left in the Obama administration. Then again, America’s tech innovators tend not to think small. 

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