President Obama swung by the epicenter of startup activity--South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Tex.--to make a pitch of his own. He's building a special operations team to solve some of the country's greatest problems, he said Friday in a keynote conversation. And he needs a few good tech minds to help.
"The reason I am here really is to recruit all of you. It's to say to you as I'm about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, and new approaches across disciplines [and] skill sets to solve the big problems that we're facing today?" the President said.
Obama may only have about 10 months left in his tenure, but his administration is actively recruiting leaders of the tech community who can work alongside the government for short periods of time, or even multiple years, on a special tech team. That team, the U.S. Digital Service, is made up of professionals from companies including Google and Facebook that are working with the government to simplify outdated or broken government processes.
These processes include providing veterans with crucial services and streamlining the Small Business Administration, which Obama said has been "clunky." The SBA, he added, needs to redesign itself "so that if an entrepreneur wants to start up a business here in Texas, that they can go to one spot, and in a day they've handled all the regulatory red tape that used to require maybe months to navigate," he said.
Obama also cited several examples of how the government has failed to harness technology to solve some minor challenges plaguing the nation, while also pointing to existing initiatives that he said are streamlining government bureaucracy and making the country run better. Those include reducing the time it takes to apply for student loans by "two thirds" by bringing the process online, and making it possible to apply for Social Security online in ways that couldn't be done before, according to Obama.
The President willingly admitted one of the government's biggest technological shortcomings: the failure to offer online voting, which would make it easier for citizens to elect leaders and increase voter turnout.
"It's much easier to order pizza or [plan] a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy--to select who is going to represent you in government," Obama said, adding that the U.S. is the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. Obama also cited the failure to keep Healthcare.gov up and running after passing the Affordable Care Act as one of his administration's most significant unforced errors.
Still, while conceding that Healthcare.gov was "embarrassing" for him personally, the response to it, he said, helped craft a broader strategy for the U.S. Digital Service. "We had to bring in a S.W.A.T team of all my friends from Silicon Valley, Austin, and some of the best soft are engineers in the world, to come in and fix it," he said. "What we realized was that we could potentially build... a world-class technology office inside of the government, helping across agencies. We've done that."
Though Obama didn't comment on the specific dispute between Apple and the FBI over unlocking an encrypted iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernadino, Calif. shooting last year, he did address the broader challenge of keeping the country secure without intruding on Americans' privacy.
"The question we have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong there's no key--no door at all--then how do we apprehend the child pornographer [and] how do we solve a terrorist plot?" he said. "I suspect that the answer is going to come down to how [we can] create a system where the encryption is as strong as possible, the key is as secure as possible, [and] is accessible by the smallest number of people possible, for a subset of issues that we agree are important."