White House solicits advice from industry on modernizing government

Top leaders discuss ways to upgrade technology in government to improve management.

The White House Forum on Modernizing Government on Thursday brought together senior administration officials and top industry executives to discuss how the government can close its technology gap with the private sector.

Before the event, Jeffrey Zients, chief performance officer and Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, said the technology gap between the public and private sectors is "one of the biggest barriers to efficiency and better customer service to the American people." He frequently has listed subpar technology as one of the things that most surprised him when he started working in government.

"If a company had these antiquated systems, they would have been out of business long ago," Zients said.

In addressing close to 50 private sector executives, President Obama praised federal employees and lamented the lack of technology that hinders them from performing their duties.

"Now, I can say without any hesitation that our government employees are some of the hardest working, most dedicated, most competent people I know," Obama said. "But all too often, their best efforts are thwarted because the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government. Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at the desks at their work."

Obama cited several examples of antiquated processes, including at the Patent and Trademark Office, where 80 percent of applications are received electronically but then are printed, scanned and entered into an outdated case management system. Obama called this "embarrassing" process one of the reasons the processing time for a patent takes an average of three years.

In a breakout session moderated by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, chief executive officers and senior agency officials discussed some of the difficulties in implementing major changes, particularly with political officials rotating in and out every couple of years.

"Early wins are key," said one agency official. "You've got to get in there and identify something fairly early and something you can achieve in a political lifetime which is, at most, four years."

One CEO stressed the importance of identifying what the customer -- in the government's case, the public -- needs and working from there to decide which processes should be implemented to meet those goals.

OMB will issue a report stemming from the forum, including a summary of key findings and an implementation plan with a timeline, milestones, key challenges and ownership of initiatives. The White House also will seek ideas from the public on improving the government's use of technology.