President Obama’s call for techies to step up to the big challenges facing society

“The country needs you.”

Those words grab your attention, no matter who says them. But when it’s the President of the United States, on a stage speaking directly to thousands of technologists and innovators, they take on elevated meaning.

On March 11th, Barack Obama attended the 30-year old SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas – South by Southwest Interactive festival is focused on using Internet technology to encourage more civic participation, including voting.

Interviewed by Evan Smith, Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, mr. Obama made clear from the very beginning that he was on a mission:

“So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.

In an age in which people are getting information through digital platforms, through the Internet, where people’s attention spans have shrunk, it is critical that all of you who are shaping this environment are spending this time thinking about how are we getting citizens engaged,” he said.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that the launch of Healthcare.gov had not gone swimmingly. But instead of dwelling on the failure, he focused on the success of the response to it – a small team comprised of Presidential Innovation Fellows, White House staff, and techies recruited from the private sector – which showed how well government technology could work when a more modern approach to was adopted.

“And what we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping across agencies. We’ve dubbed that the U.S. Digital Service. And we’ve got some of the top talent from…all the top tech companies. These folks are coming in, in some cases, for six months, in some cases for two years – and they are making an enormous difference in making sure that veterans are getting services on time, fixing outdated systems, making sure that agencies like the Small Business Administration that has been clunky, is redesigning itself so that if an entrepreneur wants to start up a business here in Texas, that they can go to one spot and within a day they’ve handled all the regulatory red tape that used to require them maybe months to navigate.

pr obamaNow, the folks who are working in this Digital Service, they’re having a great time, and in part because they are harnessing incredible skills to a purpose where they know that millions of people can be helped. And what they’ll tell me is that as long as they feel that they’ve got a President and somebody who’s providing some air cover, there’s no system that they can’t get in there and work and change and make it significantly better.”