President Barack Obama flew to Austin, Tex., to recruit techies and entrepreneurs at the South by Southwest conference to help the government solve problems beyond the perfect latte or a trip to Cancun, Mexico.
In an hourlong sit-down with The Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith that at times elicited laughter and applause from the audience, Obama spoke about the challenge of merging the often slow-moving, risk-averse culture of government with the quick-to-fail, disruptive world of technology. (The struggle won’t be all that unfamiliar to those converging fashion and tech, many of whom are in attendance for the next three days for Sxstyle.)
“We are in a moment in history when tech and globalization and our economy is changing so fast and this gathering at South by Southwest brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes,” the president said. “Part of my challenge is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place and help convene and catalyze folks in the private and nonprofit sector to be part of the broader civic community.”
President Obama was self-deprecating and realistic when he acknowledged the “embarrassing” failure of the Web site for the Affordable Care Act, even though he had come to be known as the “cool, early adopter president.”
He said he’d learned the importance of hiring a “SWAT team” of sorts from tech giants like Google and Facebook to solve these sort of initiatives.
He also broadly addressed the issues that surround the case between Apple and the FBI, and his thoughts on government access to smartphone data, comparing the probable cause for law enforcement to “rifle through” one’s underwear to a justifiable reason to allow access to one’s smartphone.
“This notion that somehow our data is different and can be walled off from the other trade-offs we make, I believe is incorrect,” he said. “We have to make sure it is narrow and there is oversight, and I am confident we can solve, but we’ll need the tech community and software designers to help us solve this.”
He also acknowledged the inconvenience of voting — “It’s easier to order a pizza than it is for you to exercise the most important task in a democracy” — and the surly reputation of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Internal Revenue Service. But he also said that often, citizens take for granted what the government does do, from satellites for tracking the weather to roads, and said that government faces the hardest problems.
To that end, he encouraged the SxSW Interactive attendees to increase their civic engagement.
“If we can reconceive of our government so that interactions between the private sector and government are opened up, and we use tech and data and social media to join forces around problems, then there’s no problem we face that is not soluble,” he said. “The key is to have incredible talent as is gathered here — it’s not enough to focus on the cool next thing. We have to use and harness the cool next thing, to make sure everyone in this country has the opportunity.”