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Obama urges Cabinet to use technology to make government smarter

July 08, 2013|By Christi Parsons
  • Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew arrives at the White House for President Obama's remarks on technology.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew arrives at the White House for President Obama's… (Susan Walsh / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — President Obama has told his staff to use all the technology at their disposal to make the federal government “smarter, quicker and more responsive” in his second term.

Presenting what he called a “new management agenda” at the White House, Obama noted Monday that his administration included experts from the private sector and charged them with a new task.

“As anyone knows, dealing with the federal government is not always high-technology and it’s not always user-friendly,” Obama told Cabinet secretaries and administration officials in the State Dining Room.

But his Cabinet can build “a smarter, more innovative and more accountable government for its citizens,” Obama said, adding that “we’re going to continue to adopt good ideas from the private sector.”

The goal of “smarter government” has been a frequent talking point for the president. He noted that his first campaign was the most technologically advanced at the time and said that should have translated into the most efficient government.

“We created one of the most inclusive and one of the most successful campaigns in American history,” Obama said. “Once we got to Washington, instead of an operation humming with the latest technology, I had to fight really hard just to keep my BlackBerry.”

In his first term, Obama appointed the executive branch’s first chief technology officer, with an eye toward making government more digitally accessible. With a new team aboard, administration officials say Obama wanted to make the issue a priority both privately and publicly.

His point people now include Todd Park, the new chief technology officer, who co-founded the health information technology company Athenahealth, and Steve VanRoekel, the chief information officer, who was a senior director at Microsoft.

Obama charged Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell with leading the effort. She’ll work with a team of “innovation fellows,” volunteers who have agreed to lend their private sector technology expertise to the cause.

In his State of the Union address in February, Obama alluded to a new push to innovate and streamline government but did not spell out specific plans. He did not add much detail to those broad strokes on Monday but rather talked about the commercial practices he’d like to see the government mimic.

Online shopping sites help users fill in some of their information so the consumer doesn’t have to do so every time, Obama said. Government forms on the Web should do the same, he said.

In addition, people applying for federal benefits should be able to track the status of their applications in real time, just as they can follow delivery of a package to their doorstep, he said.

The Obama administration recently started HealthCare.gov, which orients consumers on how to use the Web-based exchanges that will sell insurance and allows side-by-side comparisons of plans.

Obama noted that when the prototype of the insurance application came in at 21 pages, his team rejected it. “It’s now three pages long,” he said.

If the innovations seem incremental, that’s partly because Obama is resorting to changes he can make unilaterally, without the help of Congress.

His team can trim the length of a form by itself. But to reorganize and consolidate the federal bureaucracy, as he says he wants to do, he needs Congress to grant him greater authority. And Republicans have so far not been inclined to embrace Obama’s approach to a more efficient government.

“I’m going to keep on doing what we can administratively, but we sure could use Congress’ help,” the president said, “particularly at a time when Congress is saying they want more efficient government — they give a lot of lip service to it — and we’re operating under severe fiscal constraints.”

christi.parsons@latimes.com

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