Where do you go in Austin if you’re the President of the United States? Thankfully, now we know. Before kicking off SXSW 2016, President Barack Obama made a quick stop at Torchy’s Tacos. (This just before going on stage to be put on the spot about the Apple vs. FBI privacy scandal. Eating tacos before an event takes special skills, people.)
Obama sat down with Evan Smith, Editor in Chief of The Texas Tribune, to have a frank conversation about technology’s relationship to modern civic engagement. Our present moment in history, Obama said, is one where technology, global events, and economies are changing fast and in ways that are cutting edge and that create new opportunities, but that are also disruptive and unsettling. Specifically, Obama was present to ask a room packed with innovators and entrepreneurs: How can government be part of the positive change that’s taking place?
But he was also asking this: How can we all help solve the big problems—the ones we’ve previously relegated only to government—and start coming up with new platforms, ideas or approaches to make things better?
How can we all help solve the big problems—the ones we’ve previously relegated only to government—and start coming up with new platforms, ideas or approaches to make things better?
Making things better, Obama explained, can be a boring story. The success stories are the ones we don’t tell. Instead, media and pop culture focus on the terrible things that happen, and how nothing changes afterward—or, at least, not quickly enough. But many things are changing within government, he elaborated, citing examples of the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, ConnectED, and how many government agencies have moved their forms or processes online, including financial student aid forms, the FCC, and Social Security.
“Government actually works better in so many areas than we give it credit for,” Obama said, “because we tend to focus on those areas where it’s not working as well.”
It’s true that in any relationship, focusing on the negative doesn’t help the relationship—or the problem. It’s also true that the relationship between government and the people who can help solve problems has always been complicated. And probably will continue to be as privacy and civil liberties debates wage (necessarily) on.
The relationship between government and the people who can help solve problems has always been complicated. And probably will continue to be.
But Obama’s call to action was clear. “These are solvable problems,” he said of civic challenges like making it easier to vote or to make basic resources more available to those in need. “But it’s not a matter of us passively waiting for somebody else to solve them, and that’s part of the mindset that I’m trying to break.”
The answer, he says, is for the public sector, the private sector, and nonprofits to join forces to tackle our shared problems. “As you will recall,” he said, “the slogan was not ‘Yes, I can.’ It was ‘Yes, we can.’”
And just what is the government’s relationship to how we all move forward? It’s more about helping the right people to convene than to engineer outcomes, Obama explained. He hopes to create “a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent” helping to shape government. Already in place is a SWAT team and “world-class technology office” inside the government under the moniker U.S. Digital Services.
“It’s not enough just to focus on what’s the cool next thing. Part of what we have to do is to figure out how do we use and harness the cool next thing to make sure that everybody in this country has opportunity,” Obama said.
His call to action was also more broad—not just for technologists—but for everyone to look for ways to get engaged, to redesign systems, and to help amplify good work and great stories that are already out there in the wild. “Whatever your interests are, whatever your passions are, whatever your concerns are, we need you.”
Yes, Mr. President. Yes, WE can.
Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.