Following Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, Datamonitor opined that his campaign’s use of technology was innovative, historic and successful, but noted that running a campaign and a government are very different. Indeed, any effort to implement changes in the way the federal government uses technology can expect to meet with significant challenges. At 12:01pm on January 20, 2009, one minute after Obama assumed the office, Whitehouse.gov was updated; it now hosts a number of new features, including a daily blog and Obama’s weekly addresses on YouTube.
In an effort to make the White House website more dynamic and in line with the manner in which he ran his campaign, Obama hired a director of new media, Macon Phillips, to oversee online presence. In a sign that the administration intends to continue to leverage technology, last week, Obama hosted the first ever virtual town hall in the White House, which allowed citizens to submit questions online and vote on what they most wanted the president to address. While Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both engaged in live chats with citizens using the internet, Obama was the first president to stream live video from the White House.
By giving participants a voice and a connection, this new format allowed the president to interact with a far larger percentage of the American people and with individuals who would have little, if any, accessibility in a more traditional town hall. In the end, 93,000 users submitted over 100,000 questions to Whitehouse.gov, and over 3.5 million votes were cast. During the session, which was streamed live online, Whitehouse.gov had 64,000 visitors.
The first half of the event was allotted to taking questions from citizens, both those submitted online and voted on, as well as live video streams from citizens around the country. Obama answered questions on the major issues of the day, including the economy, education, and healthcare, half of which came from the online audience. In an interesting moment, the president made a point of answering a less mainstream question which had received a very high number of votes online; whether he supported legalizing and regulating marijuana, which could lead to a new source of revenue for the government. While he gave a simple ‘no’, it nonetheless demonstrated the power of Web 2.0 tools to raise questions that otherwise might not have been addressed in a more traditional forum.
Obama’s appointment of Vivek Kundra as Federal chief information officer (CIO) in February was also significant. Kundra, the former chief technical officer (CTO) for the District of Columbia (DC), has generated a good deal of enthusiasm among the federal IT community due to his work in DC, where he implemented a number of innovative programs, and leveraged cloud computing by adopting Google Apps and YouTube for information sharing, collaboration, and training. Judging from his early pronouncements, as US CIO he will continue to focus on the cloud and opening up access to government data, both of which fit well with the increasing adoption of constituent relationship management (CRM) in government; a trend which has resulted in agencies using technology to adopt a more citizen-centric approach to service delivery.
While this innovative spirit is encouraging, the real challenges around security will remain a concern; notably, the Federal CIO Council has launched a working group on issues of the cloud as they relate to the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002. Vendors that are able to demonstrate transparency-enhancing cloud offerings in a secure fashion will be well-placed to capitalize on what is likely to be a significant federal investment.
In terms of technology investment, figures are already available as to some of the targets of the US federal stimulus package: over $19 billion will go towards the implementation of electronic health records (EHRs); more than $7 billion has been allocated to increasing the deployment of high-speed broadband networks across the country; and $650 million will be used to increase technology in US public schools. These funds are a welcome infusion into these critical areas; a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that less than 2% of hospitals had implemented EHRs and the US currently ranks 16th in high-speed broadband access among OECD countries.
As technology applications, which increasingly permeate citizens’ business and personal lives, move towards online delivery and the cloud, the importance of having a robust broadband network will be critical for the US in order to ensure continued economic and social development. While broadband deployment is likely to spur increased EHR adoption and e-learning initiatives, the initiative is likely to lead to increased e-government and e-business applications as well, in particular those which allow agencies and companies to deliver previously unavailable online services at lower costs.
In order to monitor stimulus spending, the White House has launched Recovery.gov, a site to ensure transparency and accountability through a searchable database of projects funded by stimulus dollars. In addition, Grants.gov is being used as the go-to point for finding information about government grants and simplifying the application process. This is consistent with Obama and Kundra’s desire to increase federal transparency, and is a trend that vendors should take note of when selling their solutions to government.
There is also the issue of the president’s BlackBerry, which received a great deal of media attention during the campaign. Despite concerns that he would not be able to use such a device in office, for security reasons, the president does carry a personal communication device. While this does not necessarily have implications for the government as a whole, it is indicative of the fact that despite the potential for security breaches or a mistakenly sent email, the president appreciates the value that technology and communications provide to individual workers, including those in government.
There is no doubt that Obama has a daunting challenge ahead of him in terms of making the US federal government a more technologically-savvy organization; as the first president in the age of Facebook and Twitter, he will be forced to deal with questions that no US president has faced before. Yet in light of the recent developments outlined above, Datamonitor believes that Obama has already made some very positive technology-related decisions, and remains cautiously optimistic about his prospects of improving government IT, as well as using IT to improve government.