The importance of tech in government, from Obama’s chief of staff

Denis McDonough — President Obama's chief of staff — spoke to Ezra Klein about how to run the White House. In it, he described a process where President Obama would meet with cabinet secretaries on a quarterly basis, and the secretary would have the opportunity to tell the president what deserves his attention so that he could give them assurances, maintain accountability with them, and work with them to fix various issues.

McDonough said the thing that came up, “time and again,” was technology, then went on to describe the state and importance of technology within government. It's a fascinating listen, and I wanted to transcribe that portion of the chat for readers. Any provided emphasis and links are my own:

Ezra Klein: What were the kinds of things that would bubble up in those meetings?

Denis McDonough: The thing that came up time and again was technology. Time and again. Technology. Tech procurement, technology execution. Now procurement — we didn't get into procurement issues — those are issues to be made by the individual secretaries and their agencies; but, when they encounter problems and said, ‘Jeez, ya know, we are having problems.' DoD and VA continue to have a problem of making their services completely smooth for transition. That is to say, somebody leaving DoD can get all of his data over to VA, so VA then picks that person up and says, ‘We know precisely your status and the day you left DoD because they just handed off all of their information to us.' Alright? That's a classic example. Healthcare.gov obviously another one.

But technology, technology procurement, technology execution, cyber security, technology personnel — major issue. And it's one of the things, you know, we talked about with our replacements, to say, ‘This is going to be an issue that will rise to your attention on a daily basis.' And as a federal government, we've got to catch up with the rest of the society on where they are on what they expect from their technology.

You know, right now you can go get your mortgage online. You can do your shopping online. Do your banking online. The federal government has got to feel like it's up to snuff on that. We feel like we've made good strides on that, principally by bringing on a massive influx of capability personnel.

Also, by reforming how we procure major technology buys, but there's still a ways to go, and I think the American people are right to expect continued improvement from that — from this federal government.

Ezra Klein: Why has it been so hard for the federal government to modernize its basic technological infrastructure? I mean, it's interesting because I've been having this conversation — in some cases with you — for years.

And it's always fascinating when there's a problem that the leadership of an organization fully believes to be a problem. Nobody thinks the federal government is up to snuff on technology. And yet, for all the strides — and I do think things at the US Digital Service are a real step forward — for all the strides that get made, it continues to be a very vexing problem. And I've never quite understood why.

What would you say is, say, standing between the organization — the government — and the… not Google, but you know… just a basic level of technological competence and modern technologies throughout the organization.

Denis McDonough: Yeah. One is I think we did make good strides. So I agree with you on that.

Two is basically you're executing while you're trying to upgrade. And that's always difficult. So, if you're the social security administration, you've got to get the checks out every month, you know? Medicare's got to go every month. And so, the challenge is executing while you're upgrading. And, in that scenario, there's just not the degree of risk tolerance in the government that there is in the private sector. Because, one, governments are always going to be less risk tolerant than the private sector. Two, the impact of tumult in the public sector, in something like the social security administration, the IRS, you know, HHS, CMS, is profound, right? And, as a result, risk aversion often is going to trump risk tolerance.

Third, is personnel. We basically hire and train a set of skills that are on set pieces. The beauty of USDS — which you referenced, the US Digital Service — brings in even more tech talent trained and conversant in more modern technology. And so personnel is a big challenge.

Four is congress, right? You don't make procurement efforts without congress giving you the money. And congress often times puts its finger on the scale in terms of what kind of technology you can procure, with whom you can procure it, how you go about procuring it, and so congress is a big hassle, and a big problem, right? If you want to see a bunch of technology policy makers that are a little bit behind the cutting edge? You know what I mean? You can go to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But at the end of the day, this is what people expect. That's why in those meetings, the president spent as much time as he did on it.

What we can take away

I really enjoyed hearing the chief of staff to the president talk about these issues. Why I think it matters so much, is that this is not a problem within the bowels of government; it's at the forefront of the real-world issues government faces as a whole.

And it's not just the United States. As people in technology, we have a unique opportunity to impact massive change for the betterment of our individual systems. And given the massive amount of open sourcing of government initiatives happening, there is a gateway to get involved even out of government.

Furthermore, it's worth considering the role you and your business — especially service businesses — may play in the role of government procurement over coming years, and decades. If procurement opens up to enable more players, peals away the burdensome paperwork and instead puts emphasis on capabilities, more firms can get involved in contracting government work.

Anyway, I know this is pretty off topic, but it's an exciting time for the intersection of government and technology. Also, it's pretty dang cool to me that WordPress lead developer Andrew Nacin is in the USDS and in the mix of much of what McDonough talked about.