President Obama and more than a dozen senior administration officials met with the CEOs and top executives from more than 50 companies this afternoon for a White House forum to probe reforms the government can implement to bring it more in step with the private sector.
The government officials and corporate chieftains billed the brainstorming exercise as a down payment on plans to fundamentally overhaul the federal IT apparatus to improve efficiency and better serve the public.
"It's exciting to see the leaders of some of the most innovative, cutting-edge, tech-savvy companies in the world gathered in the city where I had to fight tooth and nail just to get a BlackBerry," Obama said in an address at the beginning of the event. "There may be a little bit of a cultural clash here, but that's exactly why we want you here."
After campaigning on a platform of change and emphatic promises to change the way Washington works, Obama and his team explained the forum as similar to the process a dysfunctional corporation would undertake when seeking to effect a turnaround.
"Government must be modernized," said Peter Orszag, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. "We're committed to a new business model in government where technology and information systems enhance efficiency."
He added, "The productivity gap between the public and private sectors is substantial."
Following the initial remarks, the visiting executives broke into groups to participate in roundtable discussions led by the deputy secretaries of various departments, with each focusing on a particular aspect of the administration's mission, such as how to approach IT projects or how to better serve the public.
Ahead of today's event, each of the executives handed in "homework assignments" they had received from the administration, providing written responses to the big questions they kicked around today in the breakout sessions.
Of course, there are many substantial and immutable factors that make the federal government a very different animal than any business. With some 2 million civilian employees and a labyrinthine set of rules and regulations overseeing things like IT procurement, the government on its face is unable to move as nimbly as members of the private sector.
"Can you imagine having a board of directors of 535 people?" quipped W. Scott Gould, the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, at one of the breakout sessions, referring to the House and Senate's check on executive authority. But Gould, a former IBM executive, said that despite the significant differences, the same lessons that help businesses evolve and prosper can and should apply to the government.
Among the IT topics, there was broad agreement on several points. The executives urged administration officials to prevail on federal IT managers to resist the temptation to build custom technologies in-house, instead opting for the standard off-the-shelf software that's in wide use throughout the private sector.
They also counseled an incremental approach to IT projects, warning that setting overly broad, long-term goals without specific benchmarks can breed a climate of cynicism among workers. Smaller, more measurable milestones, by contrast, could help nurture a sense of achievement throughout the federal IT shops.
That advice seemed to resonate with administration officials.
"It's just too big," said Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew, summing up the findings of the breakout session he led. "We have to think about breaking it down into things that can get done."
The next step in the administration's turnaround plan will be to distill the best ideas from today's event and post them online, calling for feedback from the public. Next, administration officials said they plan to publish a transformation plan within 30 days outlining the key challenges to overcome and setting milestones for its implementation.
They also vowed to keep the conversation going, and said they hoped today's event would serve as the foundation of informal networks that would see greater dialogue between the administration and leaders of the private sector concerning IT issues.