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CEOs Gather in DC to Teach the Ways of the User-Friendly (Updated)

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, January 14 2010

Because who would attend a "Summit on Customer Service," even if it was at the White House?

Today the White House bought together a bevy of CEOs to Washington to a forum on the somewhat sexier Forum on Modernizing Government. The Obama Administration wants to know what business knows about serving customers and clients, and streamlining operations. "Those are well known sciences" in the business world, promised Whirlpool CEO Jeff Fettig at the event, the opening and closing sessions of which were held in a small auditorium on the ground floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a surprisingly spring-like January day in Washington.

The CEOs in attendance represented companies both long established and somewhat newer. In addition to Whirlpool's Fettig, the generally dark-suited crowd included Craig of Craigslist and Angie of Angie's List, as well as executives from Alcoa and Adobe, Microsoft and Trader Joe's, Southwest Airlines and Yelp. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer held animated conversations in the aisles as attendees moved between sessions. Their counterparts in government were in plentiful attendance too. Seated just in front ahead of me and to the direct right of Facebook's Chris Hughes was U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, and to Kundra's right, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra. When Kundra and Chopra were joined on stage during the day's closing session by U.S. Chief Performance Office Jeffrey Zients, a Defense Department official made the crowd laugh by saying that the panel resembled "sort of the male version of The View."

And then there was Barack Obama, who, after an introduction by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, painted a colorful picture of how Washington's ways of doing business lags at least a decade behind the rest of the country's. Why, asked the President of the United States, can you easily make a restaurant reservation through, but you can't go online to book an appointment with your local Social Security office?

The kids of government employees, said the president, have better technology at home than their parents do at work. "Now this is embarrassing," said Obama; the U.S. Patent Office receives about 80% of patent applications in electronic form, which it then proceeds to print out and shuttle around the office. Obama heartily thanked the CEOs for deigning to come share what they know about technology "in a city," said Obama, "where I had to fight tooth and nail to get a Blackberry."

In many ways, the target audience at today's summit were what Zients, the U.S. point person on performance, called "dep secks" -- or in other words, the Deputy Secretaries in each agency who, despite the glitz and glamour of being an actual member of the President's cabinet, are the ones often left with making operating decisions day in and day out. "Every department has customers, either the public or in business," said one participant from one of the federal agencies. The trick is to learn to serve them, and to do it, as Obama said, "without spending a lot of taxpayer dollars." As one White House official told me, little glory goes to the president (or cabinet official) who actually modernizes governmental infrastructure on their watch, but today's summit was intended to convey just how seriously the Obama Administration takes the job of bringing government's customer service up closer to the level of American businesses' standards.

"Know your customers," suggested attendees. Don't think about service "as a technology issue." "Celebrate smaller successes," "Embrace self-service."

Jacob Lew, Dep Sec at the State Department, reported that he was thrilled by how the business leaders and innovators approached the day's engagement. "I was very struck," he said of their tone, "by the respect for the complexity of government." Senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett wrapped the White House summit on modernization by telling CEOs that they had entered into the White House's orbit and that -- as is good customer service -- the White House would be contacting them again and again to keep up the relationship.

White House officials said that the reports from today's sessions will, starting tomorrow, be posted online and will be used to seed a broader conversation about how government can started to provide the sort of customer service that America's best companies would be proud of.

Update: From the White House, a copy of Obama's remarks from the forum.