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Farewell to Obama, our first digital president

The Obama administration embraced a fresh approach to leveraging technology platforms, and improved the experience of interacting with government.

President Barack Obama blows a bubble from a bubble wand made with a 3-D printer by 9-year old Jacob Leggette while touring exhibits at the White House Science Fair.
Win McNamee / Getty

Beginning eight years ago, the Obama administration embraced a fresh approach to leveraging technology platforms and improved the experience of interacting with government. While leading the White House’s digital technology team, I witnessed the impact of private-sector principles and ideas becoming embedded in government. It was a push to close the digital experience gap between the private and public sectors, embracing the philosophies of open government: Transparency, participation and collaboration.

Washington is a metonym for bureaucracy, division and dysfunction. Partisan politics demonstrate that we rarely agree on solutions, though as a country there is a strong belief that government needs to do better. People increasingly live their lives transparently, sharing their daily activities across social networks. For at least a decade, thanks to open standards, common technologies and open APIs, data flows easily across connected systems. Yet, the government is sadly behind the adoption curve, overpaying for clunky stovepiped systems that rarely meet the expectations set by high-quality private-sector platforms.

Opening up government

Beginning with his inauguration, President Obama issued a call to action with the Open Government Directive, stressing the importance of “[t]he three principles of transparency, participation and collaboration [which] form the cornerstone of an open government.”

The essence of the directive was that the government is a steward of nearly infinite data, and this data is public information belonging to the people. It is incumbent upon agencies to open this up, allowing the entire world to innovate on top of it. This is data as a platform, enabling innovation to create value at the intersection of two previously unrelated ideas. Now we are seeing open data help cancer patients seek clinical trials, cities releasing public safety and aerial images, and public school systems opening data on budgets and school performance. This is open government for the people.

Connecting the people to their president

Digital innovation in the White House has fostered political transparency and openness, helping reaffirm some of our oldest and most formative American values. Our team launched “We the People,” a government website that provides an open channel for any individual to petition for or against any issue they find unjust. My role was heading up the technology team responsible for building the platform, and with my engineering background, making sure we focused on a simple, clean, minimum-viable product. Together we created a platform that digitally enabled one of our basic, inalienable rights as U.S. citizens, enumerated in the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Before launch, the working title for the site was “Citizen Voices,” but given the historical significance of realizing the Founding Fathers’ intent to protect public participation in government, we wanted to link it with an homage to their work. The three most famous words in our history, “We the People,” came from the first three words of the Preamble of the United States Constitution. And if you are curious about why it takes 150 signatures for a petition to become public on the website, it was born from a comment I made in a planning meeting about Dunbar’s number and the cognitive limits of societal structures.

The platform inspired a crowdsourced mentality that galvanized people around good ideas, and streamlined the process for bringing attention to critical issues. One of the earliest high-impact petitions on the platform occurred in early 2012. After collecting over 100,000 signatures online, a grassroots movement pushed the White House to reevaluate its position on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), essentially changing the course of legislative history. The people spoke, and the president listened — a process made possible by open source technology to create a more collaborative and participatory government.

Maintaining digital momentum

It is imperative that our government work with best-of-breed services and technologies to move our nation forward, and the introduction of open source models has allowed our government to do just that. The Obama administration’s digital initiatives have allowed people to influence legislation, collaboratively innovate with government agencies and, most importantly, participate in their government. In creating a more open government, we have seen political practices upended and barriers between citizens and the administration broken down. But our past success is only the beginning.

Politics, programs and initiatives evolve over time, but good technologies will always be required to deliver on promises. Every incoming administration runs into the same conundrum faced by Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: Governing is really hard. Technology should be there to make things easier, better and faster. We have worked incredibly hard over the last eight years to bring software developers into the public sector, and to imbue open source ideologies in our federal government.

Battles have been fought and policies have been changed, and now we look to the next administration to build upon this solid digital foundation, inspiring private sector technologists to continue engaging in public service. In the words of the president, “We want to do everything to help [the president-elect] succeed, because if [he] succeeds, the country succeeds.”

As the chief digital strategist and VP for public sector at Acquia, Tom Cochran helps governments across the federal, state and local sectors leverage cloud and open source to accelerate their digital initiatives. He was most recently a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State, where he was responsible for the online and offline platforms for U.S. public diplomacy, focusing on data-driven decisions and international audience engagement. Prior to that, Cochran was the director of digital technology at the White House, where he worked on the president's Open Government Directive, leading the team that was responsible for providing a secure, stable and scalable infrastructure across all White House digital properties. Cochran has also held leadership roles in the private sector, most recently as the chief technology officer at Atlantic Media. Reach him @tommer and @acquia.

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