On Friday, Barack Obama will become the first sitting president to address South by Southwest. His stated purpose in attending the annual innovation festival in Austin is to invite more ideas from technologists for modernizing government. But he likely has a less explicit goal: To crystallize his legacy on transforming the government with digital technology. No doubt the president would like people to remember more than the bungled healthcare.gov rollout or the more recent security/privacy battle between the FBI and Apple. They should.
Obama’s tech story reaches back to his first campaign in 2008 and the strides his administration has made since then. In 2009, Data.gov launched to the public with 47 federal data sets; today there are more than 193,000. In 2012, Obama’s team welcomed the first Presidential Innovation Fellows, a successful program that brings outside experts, often technologists or entrepreneurs, into government to work on a specific project that will enhance service delivery to the American people. Although 2013 saw the botched kickoff of healthcare.gov, it also saw the tech SWAT team that was brought in to rescue the site. In 2014, the president’s team created 18F to serve other federal agencies, providing them with digital and design know-how. At his 2015 State of the Union address, the president gave prominence to the new United States Digital Service.
These efforts represent more than a laundry list of technology-related programs for government. Step by step, and in ways that reinforce each other, the president’s initiatives have been designed to make our government more open, more agile, and more focused on citizens.
As Obama introduced these initiatives, public entrepreneurship was taking root across the country. Jennifer Pahlka and her colleagues started the nonprofit Code for America, to bring citizen designers and software engineers into government, and received funding from the Omidyar Network and the MacArthur Foundation. In Boston, in 2010, Mayor Thomas Menino declared, “We are all urban mechanics,” and launched his Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to open City Hall’s doors to more inventors and experimenters. Other cities followed suit.
Today more public entrepreneurs are starting their own companies to solve public policy problems, and new venture firms are funding them. Incubators and accelerators, from the famed Y Combinator to the growing 1776, are hosting and serving them. New courses at NYU, the University of Chicago, and Harvard are sharing the tools of public entrepreneurship with a next generation of students.
One of our recent graduates is serving on the President’s Digital Service team to help transform the VA to better serve veterans and their families. The administration continues to bring in more talent with a focus on better delivery of government services. That’s the legacy that Obama can tout in Austin this week.
Mitchell Weiss is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. He was chief of staff to Mayor Thomas M. Menino.