Top executives of social networking firms, software companies, retailers, and even the head of restaurant reservation service gathered in the White House today to give the Obama administration ideas for improving outdated federal IT systems.
Among the more than 50-plus officials invited to attend the "Forum on Modernizing Government" were: Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft; Shantanu Narayen is president and chief executive officer of Adobe Systems Inc.; Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist; Sal Iannuzzi, the chairman and CEO of Monster.com; William McComb, the CEO of Liz Clairborne Inc.; John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts Inc.; Chris R. Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook; Jeffrey Jordan the CEO of, OpenTable Inc.; and Ronald Sargent, the CEO of Staples Inc.
President Barack Obama welcomed the CEOs with a quip, describing Washington as "the city where I had to fight tooth and nail just to get a Blackberry," a reference to the battle early in his administration to continue using a mobile device.
"There may be little bit of a cultural clash here," he said.
The "technology revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government," said Obama, adding that the children of federal employees often have better than technology in their backpacks than federal workers have in their offices.
To illustrate his point, Obama described what he called an embarassing process used by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for handling patent applications. Although more than 80% of patent applications are received electronically, the process calls for workers in the office to "manually print them out, scan them, and then enter them into an outdated case management system."
He said the outdated process is a key reason that it takes three years on average to process patent applications.
The U.S. is wasting billions of dollars in part because federal technology is out of date, said Obama. People should be able to use federal services with the same ease that consumers have booking restaurant tables on OpenTable or a flight on Southwest.com, he said.
Modernizing the federal IT infrastructure and learning from the best practices used in the private sector has been a common refrain of prior administrations, but this time federal officials say it will be different -- the problem is getting the direct attention of the president. And, they add, government IT projects are becoming more visible to the public via efforts like the federal IT dashboard that tracks projects.
Jeffrey Zients, the White House chief performance officer, said that one of the biggest barriers faced by the federal government "is the significant technology gap that exists between the government and the private sector."
Vivek Kundra, who is the first federal CIO, said the White House has also raised the visibility of CIOs at federal agencies, who in prior administrations "were buried three or four layers below" the business units.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed .