Here’s a fascinating story:
Then there’s Lisa Gelobter…There was this call she got out of the blue last summer in New York, inviting her to some kind of roundtable discussion in Washington for tech leaders. Lisa had just spent time on the upper management teams at Hulu and BET. She decides, reluctantly, that she’ll go take the meeting, which includes this guy named Mikey as well as this other guy named Todd, and turns out to be in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing. Then President Obama opens the door and surprises everyone, and over the course of 45 minutes gives the sales pitch to beat all sales pitches. They need to come work for him. They will need to take a pay cut, the president announces. But he doesn’t care what it takes—he will personally call their bosses, their spouses, their kids to convince them. The crowd laughs. But he gravely responds: I am completely serious. He needs them to overhaul the government’s digital infrastructure now. “What are you going to say to that?” asks Lisa.
Thus begins the fascinating story that reporter Jon Gertner calls: Obama’s Stealth Startup. The guys named Todd and Mikey are Todd Park and Mikey Dickerson who led the team that was brought in to fix the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov. As President Obama suggested at the time, the federal government was in dire need of an overhaul when it comes to how IT was budgeted and procured. In the article, Gertner zeros in on what went wrong.
One of the first lessons Dickerson learned about D.C. when he arrived was that the city traditionally conflates the importance of a task with its cost. Healthcare.gov ultimately became an $800 million project, with 55 contracting companies involved. “And of course it didn’t work,” he says. “They set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to build a website because it was a big, important website. But compare that to Twitter, which took three rounds of funding before it got to about the same number of users as ÂHealthcare.gov—8 million to 10 million users. In those three rounds of funding, the whole thing added up to about $60 million.”…In his Fast Company interview, President Obama remarks that he made a significant mistake in thinking that government could use traditional methods to build something—Healthcare.gov—that had never been built before. “When you’re dealing with IT and software and program design,” the president explains, “it’s a creative process that can’t be treated the same way as a bulk purchase of pencils.”
As a result, the Obama administration began to recruit top tech talent to overhaul the government’s digital infrastructure. Park and Dickerson are now part of something called U.S. Digital Services (USDS). Here’s how the President described its purpose.
Better digital tools could upgrade the websites of, say, the Veterans Administration, so users get crucial services that save time, money, and (for veterans in need of medical help) lives. “But what we realized was, this could be a recipe for something larger,” the president explains. “You will have a more user-friendly government, a more responsive government. A government that can work with individuals on individual problems in a more tailored way, because the technology facilitates that the same way it increasingly does for private-sector companies.” In other words, if Obama’s tech team can successfully rebuild the digital infrastructure of Washington—an outcome that is by no means certain yet—you might not only change its functionality. You might transform Americans’ attitudes about government too. And you might even boost their waning feelings of empowerment in an ideologically riven country of 320 million people.
But Gertner also captures the fact that the benefits of this initiative are actually a two-way street.
…the point for Obama is not to sell these candidates on a career in government, but rather to enlist them in a stint of a year or two at USDS, or even a few months. For decades, accomplished lawyers and economists have worked in the capital between private-sector jobs, so why not technologists? “What I think this does,” says Megan Smith, the current U.S. chief technology officer, who spent much of her career at Google, “is really provide a third option. In addition to joining a friend’s startup or a big company, there’s now Washington.”
This idea appeals greatly to the president—in fact, it was built into the USDS design from the start. “I’m having personal conversations with folks, meeting with them, or groups of them, and pitching them,” Obama says. “And my pitch is that the tech community is more creative, more innovative, more collaborative and open to new ideas than any sector on earth. But sometimes what’s missing is purpose. To what end are we doing this?” As the president explains, he asks potential recruits, “Is there a way for us to harness this incredible set of tools you’re developing for more than just cooler games or a quicker way for my teenage daughters to send pictures to each other?” For the time being, at least, there seems to be.
I’d simply add that this project ensures that some of the brightest minds in the tech industry will have hands-on experience with the important role that government plays in people’s lives and a commitment to ensure that safety net is maintained.
What I love about this story is how it integrates what we often view as the cold world of technology with the very human need for effective government services as well as the need of professionals in the hottest industry in the world to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. It doesn’t get any better than that!
For those who suggest that voters want a more effective streamlined government that works for them…here’s your story. As a friend of mine would say, “Now run and tell that.”