Obama’s former digital director reveals the rule that helped him create We The People

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One of the first things incoming U.S. President Barack Obama did after walking into the White House was to sign the “Open Government” memorandum, promising a new era of transparency, participation and collaboration.

According to Tom Cochran, this was the moment the bleak reality of working in the public sector began to manifest itself.

“Not only did it not work, but everything was terrible,” the former White House director of new media technologies said to a crowd of public sector professionals in Toronto on Thursday. “It was actually worse than that — it was horrible.”

Cochran, who is now chief digital strategist at enterprise Drupal specialist Acquia, said the issue was not the mandate President Obama had set for the administration. It was the state of the existing IT infrastructure and policy towards the use of new tools that make it difficult to live up to it. This was a problem many leaders working B2B organizations, from CIOs to CMOs and CDOs, could probably appreciate.

According to Cochran, for example, approximately 82 per cent of the technologies being used across the government at the time were near their end of life and needed to be replaced. Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth were prohibited. E-mail was routinely down for up to six hours a day, and the administration experienced a 21-hour e-mail outage on the sixth day after Obama took office.

“Everyone still had desktops — with disk drives,” Cochran remembered incredulously.

Although digital transformation wasn’t the buzzword it is today, Cochran said any attempt to introduce meaningful change was impeded by the kind of red tape you might expect in the public sector.

“There was a love of process,” he said. “There’s a form you need to fill out to create a form. The thing is, process is supposed to get you somewhere. It should get you to results.”

Instead, a new initiative might involve 12 months just for requirements gathering, followed by similar stretches for review before work ever began.

“After 48 months you’ve wasted $180 million and it’s not even close to what you wanted,” he said.

Despite these roadblocks, Cochran said he managed to “break a few rules” and introduced Drupal and other tools to create We The People, a portal where any U.S. citizen could submit a petition to the government. The site was a simple way to deliver on all three areas of the open government memorandum by giving direct access to raise issues at the highest levels.

“It was building on the vision of the First Amendment with the scale allowed by technology,” he said. If a petition garnered 100,000 signatures, the Obama administration committed to offering an official response — including most famously, a petition to create the “Death Star” from Star Wars.

Like many working in digital roles, Cochran said he was big believer in creating a “minimum viable product” or prototype of an idea to secure buy-in from the organization. However he said one of his biggest takeaways of working in the Obama administration was the notion of a “minimum viable team.” There was an inverse relationship, he said, between the size of a team and its ability to get anything done.

“I had an office with a round table and six chairs. So I decided I could not do any project with more than six people on it,” he said, such as a developer, a designer, project manager and so on. “There was a seventh person, but they were there to make sure no one else came in.”

That rule may not work in every enterprise context, Cochran admitted, but he said there is a difference between making sure stakeholders are consulted versus having them at the table every time.

“People were angry that they were not in the meeting. Even if they said nothing,” he said. As small teams started bringing new technologies to boost productivity and results, though, attitudes began to shift. “It was like this collaboration bomb that exploded.”

Earlier this month, Acquia released a set of tools for digital marketers that are also aimed at accelerating the speed and effectiveness of teams. This includes its Acquia Journey Manager and Acquia Digital Asset Manager.

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.