South by South West (SXSW) first began in 1987 to improve the exposure of the local creative and music communities. Over the years SXSW has changed as film and digital communities found a home in the festival.
However this year saw another shift towards a growing political contingent, as President Obama and the First Lady attended, alongside a number of other senior White House staffers. Whilst technology has always co-existed with politics, the 2016 SXSW conference looks to be a watershed moment.
During his keynote speech President Obama called on the tech community to help solve government issues and increase civic engagement. He told his audience of 2,100 technology executives and enthusiasts, “Really the reason I’m here is to recruit all of you.” As Jason Goldman, White House Chief Digital Officer noted on his Medium post, “Technology puts users first, it enables Americans to find their voice, for our government to deliver better services, and make our country more just.”
A tech enthusiast, Mr. Obama has long been trying to lure more tech executives and engineers into the 140 strong United States Digital Service from Silicon Valley to make federal agencies more responsive to customers. The idea is that this top tech talent do a short tour of duty, for a number of months or a year, and bring the skills and ethos of Silicon Valley to government IT.
The Service has recently been involved in rescuing the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov and is closely involved with teams at Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense amongst others. The Digital Service created a playbook of 13 key “plays” drawn from successful practises from the private sector and government that if followed together, “will help government build effective digital services.”
Obama’s engagement with the tech community and desire to overhaul the government’s creaky and outdated digital infrastructure is an important legacy. As per the words of the Director of Digital Engagement at the U.S Department of Commerce, Mike Kruger, “Elevating digital to a White House post raised the importance of doing digital well in a way that nothing else could.” If, by 2017, Obama’s United States Digital Service can successfully rebuild Washington’s digital infrastructure, then it could transform and empower Americans’ attitudes about government.
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