White House asks tech leaders how to modernize government

Tech leaders tell the Obama administration that agencies need to keep IT projects simple and focused

The U.S. government needs to stop wasting money on doomed IT projects and update outdated technology to better serve residents, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday.

Many of the U.S. government's IT systems hinder the ability of government workers to serve residents, Obama said during a speech on modernizing government. His speech was part of an afternoon summit during which Obama administration officials sought advice on improving government effectiveness from leaders of more than 50 companies.

"Our government employees are some of the hardest working, most dedicated, most competent people I know," Obama said. "Government workers get a bad rap. All too often their best efforts 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.

"Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at their work," Obama added.

Some government agencies still don't have internal files online, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has to print out electronic patent applications and scan them to enter them into an old case-management system, Obama said.

Obama also suggested that many government IT projects take too long to implement, although he didn't provide many examples. "Too often, when we've attempted to update or replace outdated technology, we end up spending exorbitant amounts of money on technologies that don't meet our needs, or that took so long to implement, that they were obsolete before we even started using them," Obama said.

Administration officials said they hoped Thursday's summit was just the start of a dialog with business leaders about how to modernize government.

Speaking at a later break-out session on maximizing technology return on investment, Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe Systems, seemed to agree. Any IT project that "takes more than 18 months is probably too complex and is probably going to be obsolete by the time you implement it," he said.

Narayen and John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, urged government officials to keep their IT projects simple and stay away from feature creep.

"I don't know if I've ever been involved in an IT project that didn't cost more for customization than the core software," Riccitiello said.

Government IT projects should have "extremely narrow" defined purposes, Riccitiello added. Project managers need to ward off calls for more features or functionality than what is necessary, with technologies designed so that new features can be added later, he added.

Too often, when large groups of people are designing an IT project, the project begins to stray from its original mission, Riccitiello said. "They get in this mode of dreaming if the 15 ways they might want to use it," he said. "They ask for it because they can dream of it, they can imagine it, not because it's essential."

Speaking to reporters before the summit, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes said he would tell White House officials that government Web sites can improve by focusing on customer needs, instead of focusing on their own processes. Many government Web sites don't make their most demanded services their most prominent feature, he said.

Operators of government Web sites should pay attention to analytics to tell them why customers are coming to their sites, Hughes added. "When you pay attention to data, when you pay attention to metrics, you can get people where they want to go much more efficiently and much more quickly and make your system more useable," said Hughes, who served coordinator of online organizing for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

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