What Obama Did for Tech

Inevitable or intentional, the last eight years have elevated the profile of IT.

by / September 26, 2016
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

People love to blame a president when things go wrong. A target for each man’s Two Minutes Hate, the age-old practice gained a convenient vehicle in the minting of a catchy new colloquialism bearing the current president’s name: “Thanks, Obama,” anyone can say sarcastically when their life doesn’t go perfectly. And while the president is as good a person to blame as any, both the criticism and acclaim he receives are often irrational. President Obama said himself in a 2015 interview with comedian Marc Maron that the presidency is a position akin to middle management.

“Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work,” Obama said. “Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than where we were.”

The president wasn’t shifting blame, but being realistic about what the commander in chief is capable of, historically. Change in government is slow. That didn’t stop a lot from happening in government during Obama’s two terms, including many technology firsts, but that’s to be expected, because the world changed a lot too. Chronicling Obama’s tech legacy isn’t a matter of tallying everything he did, but isolating what he did differently from what another person in his position might have. And like the president said, it’s not about him, but the heading of this vessel and the sea’s temperament when the next captain relieves him.

Deeper Dive

Here’s a look at a few of the higher profile initiatives and their progress over the past eight years:

Cloud by Default
New Tech Roles
Transparency and Open Data
Data Center Consolidation
USDS and 18F
Cybersecurity

A president’s leadership starts with the type of person he is and the image he cultivates. And Obama is the kind of person who makes hard work look easy. He’s the kind of person whose basic personality structure supersedes his social status. Trapped on a deserted island, he would probably draw faces on coconuts, line them up and then calmly delegate tasks as he designed an escape that would lead to his eventual presidency. The winsome smile, that hand gesture he always does, even the nickname “Barry,” all exude an aura of measured, easy-going determination. It’s the same intangible element that allows him to be interviewed by comedians and appear on Web shows like Between Two Ferns, and still come across as both personable and firmly presidential. In short, Obama is cool. And for better or worse, his leadership was dictated by that image and demeanor.

His own digital literacy and willingness to consider new approaches to problems is one of the most noticeable distinctions of the Obama administration, said Rick Holgate, former CIO of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Right from the start, Obama brought a new breed of worker into the White House, and doubled-down after the failure of HealthCare.gov.

“He brought a lot of folks from his campaign into his administration that played a key role in institutionalizing some of that different thinking,” Holgate said. “That’s a lasting commitment he brought in terms of getting the value of digital technology and innovation, encouraging people who don’t normally think of themselves as federal employees. It was through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and ultimately 18F and USDS and even at the agency level, that they tapped into that same talent pool from outside of government to bring in that different approach to things, folks like Mikey Dickerson and Megan Smith and Todd Park.”

It was the impression left on the federal government’s culture that this president will be remembered for, said Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America’s executive director.

“Ten years from now, I think the biggest impact ... will be on leadership in government and how they think, more than anything else,” said Pahlka. “One thing that could have absolutely gone differently was the way in which he called on people from the outside to rescue HealthCare.gov. The fact that he so much stood behind that and was willing to back these outsiders, that I think was a turning point, and the fact that he learned the right lesson from it and decided to institutionalize it.”

Obama taught government how to ride the technology bicycle. A future president who neglects technology won’t be able to make it forget the skills taught through the influence of Silicon Valley and startup culture, said Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer.

“This muscle, at the highest level of policymaking, will carry forward,” he said. “How they choose to use this capacity, what problems they choose to go after and in what form or flavor will obviously be dependent on the goals or priorities of the next president. But this is an arrow in the quiver that will permanently be made available — the yellow arrow of tech, data and innovation will be there.”

Chief among the consequences of government’s new tactic regarding technology is a data love triangle. Private companies demand and rely on public data to run their businesses. Weather, for instance, is a $5 billion industry built on a foundation of public data. The populace demands government data to further social causes, abandoning more traditional methods of activism that relied solely on government intervention. And the federal government, which is the Saudi Arabia of data, as Todd Park calls it, finds these relationships to be symbiotic on both societal and economic fronts, and so it builds new data derricks each week.

This was by design, said Chopra. Soon after starting, and with a deadline of weeks, they asked departments to publish three high-value data sets that would serve core missions.

“We were trying to go after culture more so than technology, which is to say you should publish by default,” Chopra said. “We asked agencies to think of initiatives that were really closed-loop ideas, so there would be freedom to innovate at the agency level and cross-pollinate those ideas.”

Park, who was then the CTO of Health and Human Services, understood Obama’s path best. The point wasn’t to run his department more efficiently just because it was possible to do so, but also to improve health, which was his department’s mission.

Into federal departments, into state and local government offices, Obama’s spiritual leadership seeped. Ted Smith, chief innovation officer of Louisville, Ky., recalled a visit from Chopra during the president’s first term that illustrated “a perfect waterfall” of policy between the White House and his mayor’s office. A focus on data, innovation and a belief that Americans can do anything, were values that pumped through the heart of government at every level. It wasn’t just the times, Smith said. What the president did with technology was grander than the historical backdrop he worked against.

“There are those who think a government should be smaller, a government should be cheaper. And there’s a bit of technology narrative that fits that,” Smith said. “That’s not the one we’ve had for the past seven-plus years. We’ve had a narrative that said, ‘We’re the folks that put you to the moon, we’ve cured polio, we can do these things, and I want to see this sector of our society lauded and embraced.’”

The president led on open data, cybersecurity and the creation of new government roles, but his greatest legacy lies in his constancy, said former Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid. Backing programs he believed in and serving as a template that others could model themselves after, Obama lived up to his charge as a spiritual leader.

“When I was in Philadelphia and we created the open data program,” Ebeid said, “I modeled it after the principles outlined by Obama’s call for greater transparency through open data.”

Obama made complex technologies and esoteric concepts easy for government leaders and the public to approach and embrace, and always on their own terms. Cool people don’t force their will on others.

“He outlined enough of that framework so people could understand the basic premise and the operating principles, and then after that they can customize it to fit their own local unique needs,” said Ebeid. “I have to give him credit that he could have easily said, ‘That’s not my focus, those things are distractions’ or ‘I don’t believe in them,’ but he had the courage to act on what people were advising him and I think he surrounded himself with very smart people who understood that a federated approach to establishing these programs is much more sustainable than a dictatorial, top-down, authoritarian approach.”

Even where the president failed, HealthCare.gov being the most obvious failure, his administration made the most of it. And every administration has had large failures, said Frank Reeder, director and co-founder of the Center for Internet Security.

“The president is nominally the chief executive, but in point of fact, his interest is in policy, not in execution,” Reeder said. “One of the important legacies of this administration, largely driven by the public failure of the first rollout of the Affordable Care Act, is that I don’t think any administration in the future will neglect execution in the way that every previous administration had, because there were, for the first time, potentially very significant political consequences of these failures.”

Obama was the first president to mention cybersecurity in a State of the Union address. He championed the importance of competition in the broadband market and supported broadband for education with ConnectED. The Blue Button Initiative created a starting point for online health care. The Green Button Initiative established standards that today allow millions of households and businesses to monitor their energy usage online. TechHire brought new manpower into a job market starved for talent. The Smart Cities Initiative invested more than $160 million in technologies to fight crime, traffic and climate change.

Obama lifted technology’s profile and got leaders focused. Vivek Kundra’s 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management didn’t gain traction until years later, Reeder said, but someone had to start chipping away at the misguided “encyclopedic approach” of managing IT. He kept things simple, highlighted priorities and led by example.

Obama’s social programs are compelling, but meanwhile, there’s some portion of $60 billion being wasted each year. Of the federal $80 billion annual IT budget, three-quarters goes toward operations, and much of those include maintaining outdated systems and outright waste. When Obama took office, server utilization was at just 9 percent.

They’ve made headway, said Dave Powner, director of IT issues at the Government Accountability Office, but they also have a long way to go. They’ve closed thousands of data centers and saved $2.8 billion. By 2019, they could save another $5.4 billion, Powner said.

Technology will continue to thrive in government as long as leaders remain unlikely to ignore useful tools at their disposal. But the institutionalization that Obama’s administration is credited with is not whole. Aside from pieces of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, there wasn’t much codifying of Obama’s key technology policy.

Demanding more of Congress, being more forceful with his policies, and seeking a balance between dictator and cool guy may have yielded longer-lasting results, said Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). The president did many things right, he said, but the administration’s strict bottom-up approach left much unfinished business.

“They focus a lot on startup activities, and that’s not a criticism. That’s good, but they don’t focus as much on getting national scale,” Atkinson said. “They kind of think that if they support a lot of experiments and ‘1,000 flowers blooming,’ that scale will happen automatically. And that just isn’t happening.”

Approach aside, Obama’s administration also decided that certain projects either weren’t worth pursuing or didn’t align with his strong social focus. Payment systems are behind, the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace went nowhere, ties between state and federal technology programs are weakly supported in many cases, electronic health records are far from ubiquitous, and while cybersecurity is given top billing, intrusions like the June 2015 Office of Personnel Management data breach, which aired more than 21.5 million private records, broadcast a level of carelessness and ineptitude that remains peppered throughout government.

It’s easy to criticize with the benefit of hindsight, said Teri Takai, former CIO of California, Michigan and the Department of Defense (and now a senior adviser for the Center for Digital Government, owned by Public CIO’s parent company e.Republic), but government and the world it operates in have come a long way in the last few years.

“To judge them now for ‘they didn’t do this’ and ‘they didn’t do that’ is somewhat unfair because the overall dialog was not to the height it is now,” she said. “When I was at DoD five years ago, we were still feeling a little like we were in the wilderness, trying to get people to understand the cybersecurity threat. I think that the president is not getting enough credit for what he and his office have tried to do.”

And what Obama’s administration did, said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge, was lift technology from the status of a “back-office backwater” to a core skill that no one can ignore.

“I think you saw it on full display with HealthCare.gov where you had the signature policy initiative of this administration almost undone by a bad website,” Franklin-Hodge said. “That is a light bulb for so many people when you realize the quality of your website could be the thing that allows your policy to succeed or fail.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.