Technology and the Imperative of Citizenship
President Obama is traveling to South by Southwest tomorrow — the first sitting President to do so. In Austin, he’s going to make 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.
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.”
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. 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 a 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.
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 week, 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. Expect to hear this pitch from President Obama tomorrow.
And later this spring to build on what the President will discuss 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:
1. Providing better citizen-centered services to all Americans
- Simplifying student aid: By making the application form simpler and more efficient, we have cut the amount of time required to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by two-thirds, from 60 minutes to an average of 20 minutes. And we’ve revamped student loans, setting up and expanding Pay-as-you-Earn and related income-based repayment plans that peg payments to earnings, which are making student loans more manageable for over 4.2 million borrowers.
- Helping students prepare for college: The Education Department built a new College Scorecard that helps students, families, and those who advise them make better decisions about one of the most significant financial decisions they’ll make in their lifetimes — where to go to college. The new college scorecard includes the most comprehensive, reliable data ever published on students’ employment outcomes and success in repaying student loans. More than 1.4 million students have benefited from these data, and the College Scorecard has been accessed over 9.4 million times in less than 6 months.
- Giving people access to their health information: Since 2010, through initiatives such as Blue Button, more than 3 million veterans, service members, and Medicare beneficiaries have now accessed their personal health data more than 43 million times from their government. More than 150 million Americans now can access their health information from health care providers, medical laboratories, retail pharmacy chains, and state immunization registries.
- Improving the immigration process online: The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is overhauling its immigration processing system and moving away from paper forms and allowing people to apply for immigration services online. Already, over 300,000 people have been able to file applications to renew their green card online, dramatically reducing the time to apply. And this year, USCIS will move to electronic filing for all naturalization applications, which will expand the ability to file online to approximately 800,000 people each year. Six months ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced a new online Civics Practice Test, which has already helped 1.1 million people prepare to become U.S. citizens.
2. Helping Americans engage with their government in new and meaningful ways
- Blocking robocalls: 70 million illegal robocalls have been blocked by a new product, Nomorobo, developed by an entrepreneur as a result of a $50,000 Federal Trade Commission prize competition.
- Giving everyone a voice in government: The White House established We The People, a platform that provides citizens with a way to exercise the right to petition, enshrined in the First Amendment but never spelled out elsewhere. This platform has enabled more than 31 million Americans to petition the White House on issues that matter to them.
- Empowering Americans with data: Through the Opportunity Project, we are putting data and tools in the hands of civic leaders, community organizations, and families to help them navigate information about critical resources such as access to jobs, housing, transportation, schools, and other neighborhood amenities. The Opportunity Project also includes a unique package of federal and local datasets in an easy-to-use format and new ways for the federal government to collaborate with local leaders, technologists, and community members to drive innovation that will tackle inequities and strengthen communities.
- 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. Recently, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration announced it will award $30,000 in prizes for developers who create a mobile app that supports patients recovering from opioid dependence.
3. Tackling complex policy challenges and using new technologies to improve the lives of Americans
- Cutting the cost of diapers for low-income families: Low-income families spend an average of $936 per child on diapers every year — double what some higher-income families pay. The Administration teamed up with Jet — and First Quality (the makers of Cuties brand diapers) to help low-income families and non-profits find the savings that the new economy provides to the rest of us. Now, any non-profit (and the families they serve) will able to purchase diapers as much as 25 percent cheaper than the current available price.
- Personalizing health care: The Administration launched the Precision Medicine Initiative to accelerate a new era of medicine that delivers the right treatment at the right time to the right person, taking into account individuals’ health history, genes, environments, and lifestyles. Over the next year, we will build a nationwide cohort to advance cutting-edge research in this field, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has gotten a leg up on that effort, with over 450,000 veterans already participating through the Million Veterans Program.
- 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.
- Revolutionizing our understanding of the human mind: The Administration is increasing its investments in the “BRAIN” Initiative and spurring significant philanthropic and private-sector commitments to this bold research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.