With its first birthday fast approaching, the Obama administration is holding a series of events today that amount to a paean to the president’s campaign promises of using technology to transform government and live up to the ideals of openness and transparency.
This afternoon, Obama is holding a forum to hear from the CEOs of 50 private-sector firms, many in the tech sector, pairing senior government officials with business leaders to gather suggestions for applying technology to modernize the government.
“We want good ideas from both sectors,” Jeffrey Zients, the administration’s chief performance officer, said this morning on a conference call with reporters. “Today is about gathering the best practices, the best ideas, coupling those with the right technologies.”
Among the invited attendees are Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who ran the social media plank of Obama’s presidential campaign.
The push to implement new technologies across the government comes in recognition that many critical government processes have failed to keep up with the efficiencies that have become commonplace throughout the private sector. Bringing the government in step with the private sector has been a central talking point of the tech team that Obama has installed in the White House.
As an example of decrepit government processes, Zients cited the procedure for processing claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where manila folders are passed from desk to desk, where they can languish buried in tall piles awaiting attention of a clerk.
“That’s antiquated,” Zients said. “That’s obsolete.”
Joining Zients on the call was Vivek Kundra, whom Obama installed as the nation’s first federal CIO. Kundra touted early administration initiatives to revamp the government’s technology infrastructure, such as Apps.gov, an online shop for federal IT managers to access private-sector cloud computing offerings.
The afternoon summit is billed as an extension of those efforts.
“Today is about unearthing the best ideas in the country that can be applied to the public sector,” Kundra said.
Administration officials speak of technology as both a path toward improving government efficiency and making the policy-making process more accessible and transparent to the public.
Later in the morning, Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and other senior staffers held an online discussion talking up administration efforts on open government, Webcast both on the White House Web site and the administration’s Facebook page.
That push began with a memo Obama released on his first full day in office charging the then-unnamed CTO with working with the Office of Management and Budget to develop an open government directiveoutlining steps for the agencies to bring more data online and implement new methods of engaging with the public.
In the same spirit, the administration has launched Web sites like Data.gov, which currently hosts 118,000 federal datasets, and an IT spending tracker that keeps a tally of how much agencies are spendingon technology procurements.
Critics of the administration have argued that the White House’s message of transparency is just a talking point, and that Obama’s team hasn’t lived up to campaign promises like posting bills online before the president signs them into law.
The proliferation of government Web sites hasn’t brought any more insight into the political negotiations over lightning-rod policy issues such as health care, critics have said.
Chopra and Norm Eisen, the special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, weren’t eager to address those concerns this morning. Asked by an online viewer why the negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the health-care bill weren’t being televised on C-SPAN, as Obama repeatedly promised during the campaign, Chopra and Eisen did not answer the question directly, instead talking up the steps the administration and Congress had taken to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue leading up to the reconciliation process.