Obama @SXSW: Tech and Civic Engagement

Obama @SXSW: Tech and Civic Engagement

by JASON GOLDMAN, White House Chief Digital Officer | March 13, 2016

President Obama traveled to South by Southwest on Friday — the first sitting President to do so. In Austin TX, he made the case for people “from all walks of life, working inside or outside of government, to help us make this democracy even stronger."

When it comes to tech, the President has had many firsts: the first “Social Media President;” the first President to appoint a Chief Technology Officer; the first President whose White House had built an online civic engagement platform, We The People; the first President with his own tech startups in the United States Digital Service (USDS), 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows. But this Administration’s use of technology is not about novelty. Instead it is rooted in the President’s broader vision about citizenship and service.

  • To see Apple CEO Tim Cook's own take on corporate citizenship, click here.

This time last year, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In that speech, the President spoke about the need to embrace the “imperative of citizenship.” Defining this core tenet of the American experience he said: “Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”

The imperative of citizenship

Coming from the tech industry, I was aware of the ways President Obama, his campaigns and the White House have used technology to help people find “the imperative of citizenship.” Tech, it seemed to me, was changing how our government engages with — and provides services to — people, and that’s exciting.

But the vision described in the Selma speech went further. This story is not about the transformative power of technology, but a way of governing that empowers people to find the “imperative of citizenship.” Giving people a voice, enabling them to be heard, and working with them to solve big problems is the animating principle of President Obama’s campaign and the core of his presidency. In Selma, the President declared “America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We’…That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.” It’s why he sought office and what drives his Administration. It’s how we make change in America.

Technology has the power to enhance this work. 

Citizenship 2.0: President Obama visits 1776, a Washington DC-based tech startup hub. (Official WH Photo)

Citizenship 2.0: President Obama visits 1776, a Washington DC-based tech startup hub. (Official WH Photo)

When it puts users first, it enables Americans to find their voice, for our government to deliver better services, and make our country more just. The chance to be part of this work — to build a more user-centered government — has inspired talented people to serve our country in new ways. They work alongside dedicated civil servants throughout the Administration, including on brand new teams such as CTO, USDS, 18F, and the PIFs.

Working together with talent across the federal government, these teams helped to codify a user-centered focus in digital services. The work they’re doing is impactful — and it’s hard to see how they don’t become permanent features of our government. Indeed, this might be President Obama’s most important accomplishment as the First Tech President: establishing a lasting legacy of service that will carry on long after he leaves office.

I am asking everyone for ideas and technologies that can help update our government — and our democracy — to be as modern and as dynamic as america, itself
— President Obama

But it’s not just by serving tours of duty in the government that technologists have embraced this call. Companies from across the tech landscape have pitched in on issues ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to providing rides to veterans for job interviews, from signing people up for healthcare to connecting young people with summer jobs. Just this month, Jet, an online shopping site, announced it is pairing up with diaper manufacturers like First Quality to make diapers more affordable for working families. This list isn’t comprehensive, nor does it include the countless companies that are working to make the world a better place without collaborating with government. In taking up this “glorious task…to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” the American tech sector — the most dynamic industry of history’s most advanced economy — has much to offer...

Coming soon: A civic summit

And later this spring, to build on what the President discussed at SXSW, we’ll host a White House Summit on Civic Engagement. The summit will showcase people and companies that are having a positive impact, and highlight new tools and collaborations between government, non-profits, philanthropy and the private sector. You can stay up to date on the summit and tell us about the technology, apps and innovations that are making a difference here.

As an entrepreneur, the best case I can make for joining this team or to find ways to contribute from the private sector is to draw attention to the quality and impact of the products we’ve already launched.

Take a look at some of the work that’s already been accomplished across the Administration:

  • Crowdsourcing innovation in government: Since 2010, the federal government has operated more than 660 prize competitions to address tough problems ranging from fighting Ebola to decreasing the soft costs of solar energy. These competitions have made more than $220 million available to entrepreneurs and innovators, including more than 200,000 solvers, and have led to the development of over 275 startup companies. Collectively, these new startups have secured over $70 million in follow-on funding and created over 1,000 new jobs;
  • Saving energy and money: Because of the My Data initiative in the energy sector, more than 150 utilities and electricity suppliers have committed to providing more than 60 million homes and businesses, or 100 million people total, access to their own energy usage data with Green Button...

For a comprehensive list of White House tech advances re process improvements to student aid and healthcare, and activities like blocking robocalls and creating online tools to help poor communities innovate, click here.



A native of St. Louis, the author became the first-ever White House Chief Digital Officer in April 2015. He was part of the Blogger team acquired by Google in 2003, where he spent four years as a product manager. In 2007, Goldman helped start Twitter Inc., serving there as Head of Product and board member until 2010. Along with Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone he started the Obvious Corporation in 2011, which has helped finance new companies like Branch and Medium.

This post appeared March 10 on the White House blog. Follow along on Twitter at @Goldman44.

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