By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
In the 30-year history of South by Southwest, one of the most special events to take place is President Barack Obama’s talk at the conference, said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive.
On Friday, Texas Tribune Editor in Chief Evan Smith interviewed President Obama at the Long Center before a crowd of more than 2,000 people. SXSW Badgeholders entered a special lottery to win tickets. The crowd also included invited guests, media, technology industry leaders and politicians.
During an hour long talk, Smith and Obama talked about civic engagement and ways to improve the government through collaboration with the technology industry.
“Part of my challenge since I’ve been President is trying to find ways in which our government can be a part of the positive change that is taking place and can help convene and catalyze folks in the private sector and nonprofit sector to be part of the broader civic community in tackling some of our biggest challenges,” Obama said.
President Obama said his administration is “spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to make government work better in digital platforms.”
“The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you,” Obama said. “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 we’re facing today.”
Smith pointed out that the culture of tech and government are totally different.
“Government is big and bloated and slow and risk averse.” Smith said. “It’s run on outmoded systems and outmoded equipment. Tech is sleek and streamlined and fail fast and enamored of the new and the shiny. How do you take these two things that seem culturally unlike and put them together in a way that they can and want to work together.”
Obama talked about enlisting the best and the brightest technology experts in the private sector to fix the website for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act. As a result, his administration built a world class technology office inside the government called U.S. Digital Services. It now has top talent from Google, Facebook and all the top tech companies working for the government. In some cases, they work six months and in others two years, he said.
They are working to update “agencies like the Small Business Administration that has been a bit clunky is redesigning itself so if an entrepreneur wants to startup a business in Texas they can go to one spot and within a day they can handle all the regulatory red tape that used to take months to navigate,” Obama said.
In Austin, Obama also met with entrepreneurs, movie makers, organizers, tech leaders to figure out ways to make a real difference in countering violent extremism. He wants government to work with the private sector and nonprofits to solve big problems.
Obama also wants to make it easier for people to vote.
“We’re the only advanced Democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote,” Obama said. “You are laughing but it is sad. We take enormous pride in that we’re the world’s oldest continuous Democracy and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote.”
It’s easier to order a pizza online or book a trip than to vote, he said.
Smith pointed out that Texas has one of the worst records for voter turnout in the country and Texas doesn’t even let its residents register to vote online.
“The folks who are currently governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people participate,” Obama said. Citizens need to make a political argument about why it is important, he said.
Obama also said that people like to complain about the government but the government does great things. It creates satellites that provide information to weather apps, it builds roads and highways and tackles some of society’s toughest problems like educating poor kids, providing shelter to homeless people and providing care to aging veterans.
“Part of our task is to tell a better story about what government does,” Obama said.