Featured image by Jillian Reddish
With one single statement, President Barack Obama summed up the country’s civic engagement issue: “It is easier to order a pizza or book a trip to Cancun than it is to vote for elected officials in America.”
The President’s SXSW Interactive 2016 keynote Friday, March 11 at the Long Center in Austin, Tex. touched on a variety of topics, but eliminating barriers to civic engagement was one key takeaway. His speech marked the first time a sitting president spoke at the event, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Far from a one-way speech, he frequently addressed the crowd directly, telling the audience he was there to “recruit” them. He said the talented SXSW attendees could help make the political process more available, accessible and engaging for all Americans.
“We’re the only advanced democracy that makes it harder [for people] to vote,” he said. “We take enormous pride in the fact that we’re the oldest continuous democracy, but we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote.”
America’s voting problem
Texas historically has one of the worst voter-turnout records in the country, and Obama was quick to say that wasn’t necessarily the fault of the people. A variety of barriers, such as being unable to register to vote online in certain states, keep people nationwide from exercising the most fundamental American right.
By leveraging the knowledge and work being done in the private sector, more states might be able to implement systems that make registering to vote, and therefore voting itself, much easier, he said. A more aware public will ideally create a more engaged public, and that’s when the real change happens on a legislative level. But in order for that to be done, Obama stressed the need to incorporate tech talent and new ideas into the bureaucratic and “bloated” federal government system. It’s a mismatch of cultures that was not lost on moderator Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.
“Government is big and slow and risk-averse, and tech is sleek and streamline and [has a ‘fail fast’ mentality],” Smith said. “How do you put them together?”
Obama used the example of the disastrous launch of healthcare.gov to illustrate how the government has worked with private talent before. The launch was considered a complete failure by millions of Americans who tried — and failed — to sign up, but he said the administration overcame the issues by recruiting a “world class SWAT team” of developers, designers and high-profile tech talent from the private sphere to help clean up the mess. He said it was just one of the many points of collaboration where the private sector worked with the public sector to create something for the greater good.
"Unemployment's now below 5%.
We avoided a Great Depression.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 11, 2016
“We want to create a pipeline where there’s a continuous flow of talent helping to shape the government,” he said. “We want to convene people to solve problems, [because] being able to work together to makes a huge difference.”
Even the federal government needs storytellers
Aside from recruiting more top tech talent, Obama said there is a vital need for storytellers to “tell a better story about what government does.” People come in contact with government services and systems everyday, even if they don’t know it, but those are the rarely told, less interesting success stories.
The negative interactions get all the attention, such as standing in line at the DMV, or filing taxes with the IRS, leaving people with a poor overall impression of the government. Obama joked that “if he could control all the DMVs in the country, he would have total control,” but he was serious in his belief that interactions with the government often leave people unsatisfied.
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The solution lies in designing better, easier-to-use systems, and then telling people about them in a compelling way.
“If you can interact with government in a way that also gives you some feedback, or [explains to you] why it’s important, then people’s attitudes change,” he said. He called again on the private sector to help with this re-design process, saying, “whatever your field is, there are ways to take this democracy back in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.”
The double-edged sword of privacy
One final question, which came from a Texas Tribune reader, focused on the situation between Apple and the FBI. While Obama said he couldn’t talk about the case specifically, he did outline his views on the need to balance citizens’ privacy while being vigilant of national security issues.
— Jill Reddish (@myJillieBean) March 11, 2016
“I am of the view that there are very real reasons why we want to make sure the government can not just wily-nilly get into everyone’s iPhones or smartphones that are full of very personal information or very personal data,” he said.
He emphasized the need for a compromise from both sides.
“If it’s technologically possible to make encryption so strong that there is no backdoor, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer, disrupt a terrorist plot, or do simple things like tax enforcement?” he said. ‘There has to be some concession [in regards] to that information.”
Ultimately, he concluded there was no way to take an absolutist position on the issue. It’s like walking a tightrope, but he said he recognized the importance of balancing the need for privacy against issues of national security. Basically, Obama isn’t interested in reading your text messages, and he never has been.
— Mashable (@mashable) March 11, 2016
As the conversation wound down, Smith tried to wrap things up. But Obama, in characteristic good-humor, was having none of it.
“I’m the president, so I’m going to take another minute,” he said, eliciting laugher and cheers from the crowd.
He went on to mention people could get involved in streamlining and improving government processes by visiting Whitehouse.gov, U.S. Digital Services, or ConnectED. He came back to the central idea of including everyone in the process to improve the system for the greater good. “Whatever your passions are, whatever your concerns are, we need you.”