How the iPod President Crashed: Obama’s Broken Technology Promise

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from Bloomberg Businessweek,

Barack Obama promised to use technology to make Americans believe in government. The failure of may do the opposite.

In the 2008 election, President Obama’s advisers talked of their boss’s belief that it was time for an “iPod government.” Obama, a technology addict who tools around on his iPad before going to sleep and who fought the U.S. Secret Service bureaucracy for the right to carry a smartphone, would be the first president truly at home in the Digital Age. That put him, he thought, in a unique position to pull the federal government into the Digital Age, too. His administration wouldn’t just be competent. It would be modern. And it would restore America’s faith that the public sector could do big things well.

After Obama got to the White House he tried to deliver on the promise. He created positions for a chief information officer and a chief technology officer.

To Obama, this was part of the core work of rescuing the idea that government could actually solve big problems. All too often, the best efforts of talented public servants “are thwarted because the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government,” he said in that 2010 speech. “Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at the desks at their work.”

The disastrous launch of has dealt a devastating blow to Obama’s vision.

Republicans are seizing on the breakdown of the health exchange to reinforce the idea that government can’t do anything right—particularly not anything of this size. Even Obama’s allies acknowledge that the debacle could do damage beyond the health-care system.

Obama’s problems aren’t unique. In 2005 the website for the Medicare prescription drug benefit launched three weeks late—the Bush administration initially blamed the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur for the delay—and the early months of the benefit were pure chaos.

The saga of has been a symphony of government inefficiency. The effort, directly overseen by the IT department of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, involved no fewer than 55 contractors. The process was thick with lawyers and political interference. In violation of current best practices in the software world, the code was kept almost entirely secret.

For all its deficiencies, isn’t the worst disaster a government has experienced on a major IT project. That distinction belongs to the U.K.’s endeavor to create an electronic medical records system for its National Health Service. The British learned from their mistakes. The disaster empowered Francis Maude, the minister for the cabinet office, to bring in technologist Mike Bracken to overhaul how the British government did IT. Today, is something of a wonder.

What Bracken has that Obama’s tribunes of iPod government lack is power, staff, and the political authority to leverage both. He controls the British government’s domain names, so his 300-person team has been methodically building better digital services for virtually everything the government does—and then simply shutting down the lackluster services that previously existed in those spaces. It’s the exact opposite of the process that led to, in which the Obama administration respected the existing lines of authority, while depriving the tech talent they’d recruited, such as Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, of the resources or the power to take control of the project.

“This is a hard problem for government,” Bracken says, “because it’s not really a technology problem. It’s a self-image problem. Government constructs its self-image in terms of size.

“Improving the technology our government uses isn’t about having the fanciest bells and whistles on our website—it’s about how we use the American people’s hard-earned tax dollars to make government work better for them,” Obama said in January 2010. “And this is something I’m very serious about.”

If that’s the case, then should be the spur he needs to do something about it. We live in an age when machines can learn. Can government?

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