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A Tech Presidency, at 100 Days

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 29 2009

Our membership cards in the Association of Online Writers require that we put together our own version of the ubiquitous "100 Days" pieces you've no doubt seen many of today. In truth, though, when it comes to where technology stands at this early point in the Obama Administration, it's actually a useful exercise. When it comes to tech, it's tempting to get caught up in the daily swirl of what's hot and what's not. But wiring a presidency -- and a country -- takes time.

And a 100 days recap on how how far Obama has come when it comes to technology is particularly worthwhile because, taken alone, every new tech development, from every new agency blog to presidential YouTube address to policy tweak can seem less meaningful than they really are. Considered in the aggregate, though, the first 100 days of the Obama Administration has, it's fair to say, marked a sea change in how Washington DC and the federal government thinks about technology. Under the first 100 days of the Obama Administration, technology has taken on a historic primacy. How citizens can engage in their democracy is discussed at the highest levels of government. How technology can revolutionize America's future is a regular subject of debate. That's a marked change, and one worth marking.

Now, when the Obama Administration started, many of us on the outside kept at least one eye on what happened to the remnants of the innovative Obama campaign. Organizing for America, as its now known, is off to a slow start. But they recently commemorated the first 100 days themselves by releasing a state-by-state map of progress thus far. Tellingly, they called it "Foundation for Change." That seems about right. The first 100 days of the Obama Administration was spent laying the foundation for technological change. What will be built on top of that foundation, we won't know for some time to come.

That said, let's recap what's happened since Inauguration Day.

You can tell a lot by a wedding band by what song they open with. Maybe, too, you can tell a lot by a presidency by what they spend their first day under the microscope discussing. For his part, Obama led off, on his very first full day in office, by issuing an order a new directive making the federal government to become open than ever before. "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government," said the new president. "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

Of course, the proof of Obama's Open Government Directive will be in what it spells out -- and whether it's embraced and adopted by the agencies and departments its meant to target. The order isn't due on the president's desk until May 21st. But there are signs that those responsible for drafting it (including Beth Noveck, the leading voice on the potential of "wiki government") get the power of technology to further democratic government; government employee input on the directive was solicited through an employee-only wiki.

Obama, as readers of this blog well know, has appointed a pair of technologists to high profile posts in his administration. One is charged with looking internally, to see how the government itself can make better use of technology. The other's mission is to look outward, to see how innovation can improve America's future.

In that first slot, of course, is Vivek Kundra. Kundra's appointment to CIO in the Office of Management and Budget was lauded by, well, just about everybody. And with good reason. The former CTO of the District of Columbia, Kundra seems right out of central casting in the role of a forward-looking technologist who also knows how to navigate government bureaucracy.

In the second slot is Aneesh Chopra, the former Secretary of Technology for the State of Virginia. Named CTO in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Chopra's appointment was well-received in tech circles -- though there was some grumbling that Obama had picked a former management consultant rather than a hard-core coder. Chopra's pick, though, might be a sign that Obama was looking for less a technological purist than someone capable of breaking the bureaucratic logjams that have stymied innovation, particularly in such high-stakes areas as rural broadband and health IT.

Increasing the possibility that those logjams will be broken is, frankly, a good amount of cold hard cash. Candidate Obama pledged innovation; President Obama has backed that pledge with money. The stimulus package contained $7.2 billion for wiring the hardest to reach corners of America.

That's not a insignificant sum -- but it's not enough to simply pay for all the fiber and wireless service needed. So Chopra will have to wheel and deal. He'll be partnered in that mission with Julius Genachowski, Obama's choice to head the FCC. (Genachowski's nomination is still stuck in Senate purgatory, but there's no reason to believe it won't pop out eventually.) Genechowski helped to sell the Obama campaign on the potential of technology, and he'll likely bring a similarly optimistic message to the FCC.

In Genachowski's absence, though, the FCC has already begun holding public listening sessions on the national broadband plan required under the stimulus package. The commission has one year to figure out how to "ensure all people of the United States have access to broadband capability." That's a stark contrast to the passive free-market approach of the previous administration.

The stimulus also set aside money to achieve another Obama tech priority -- the widespread adoption of electronic health records. Obama has brought in perhaps the U.S.'s foremost expert on health IT, Dr. David Blumenthal, to oversee the spending of $20 billion. The U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to health IT, and Obama has been proactive in using the window created by our economic struggles to light a fire under the adoption of electronic health records.

Noveck, Kundra, Chopra, Genachowski, Blumenthal. And we haven't yet mentioned Susan Crawford, the creator of One Web Day, who is heading technology and science policy on the National Economic Council. Perhaps Obama's greatest achievement thus far on the tech front has been to make DC cool again. President Kennedy once attracted a new generation of Americans to Washington by making public service seem noble again, and just a bit glamorous. Washington is quickly become a center of the tech universe. While DC is unlikely to unseat Silicon Valley anytime soon, it's newly attractive to those with bright ideas and the technical chops to match.

(One person who Obama has not attracted to Washington, though, is someone to fill the congressionally-mandated post of Intellectual Property Czar. But that's one empty office that many technologists -- disliking of notion of an IP czar to begin with -- are likely just fine with, thank you very much.)

In the White House itself, Obama has installed a team of new media experts charged with making the White House a serious player on the new media front. There have been misses; has gotten off to a slow start, and they have yet to follow through on their promise of posting legislation online for five days before the president's signing. There have been incremental successes, like the release of presidential appointees' financial disclosures online, though in a piecemeal fashion. And there have been victories, in imagination if not in practice; Open for Questions showed a commitment to participatory government beyond that of any past American president.

It's a mistake, though, to focus too much attention on what's coming out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the White House new media team resides. They'll be the first to admit that if the Obama Administration is going to succeed online, much of the work while happen outside their purview., for example, is an OMB joint. That site is very much a work in progress, but the team behind it has embraced its potential; this week's open online dialogue over the site's nuts and bolts is a case in point.

And that focus outside the White House is, you can argue, the most powerful change that has come from the Obama Administration: it has freed government employees, career and political alike, to start to dream again about what's possible when the might of government is paired with the power of technology. GSA, for example, has been busy streamlining the path of other agencies eager to use Web 2.0 technologies. The Treasury Department has launched The State Department is experimenting with social media. Nary a month goes by that there's not a "Government 2.0" meet-up of bureaucrats eager to figure out how to -- finally, belatedly -- bring change to Washington.

A great deal of accomplishments? Nah, perhaps not. But for a 100 days, not a bad down payment on a tech presidency to come.

(With Micah Sifry)