"I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people's lives," President Obama said in a speech before the meeting. "Improving the technology our government uses isn't about having the fanciest bells and whistles on our websites -- it's about how we use the American people's hard-earned tax dollars to make government work better for them."
CEOs discussed a number of suggestions at the brainstorming event, including centralizing the federal government's IT budget, requiring periodic IT investment reviews, collecting citizen feedback on government services, being transparent about customer service information internally, benchmarking, and breaking big IT projects into smaller chunks.
Under Obama's direction, the Office of Management and Budget will soon provide federal agencies with a plan to implement some of the CEOs' ideas. The plan will be part of a formal report on the findings of the forum and will include a timeline with firm milestones, plus ownership and accountability requirements for implementation.
The White House also said that it will post all the CEOs' ideas online by Friday for public comment, and will allow citizens to offer their own suggestions. It has also asked participating CEOs to become part of an informal network of advocates to help deputy secretaries and CIOs improve agencies' use of technology.
Obama pointed out that some federal agencies have yet to digitize many of their files and documents. The patent office, for example, receives electronic applications but then prints them , scans them, and enters them into another case management system, which Obama called an "embarrassing" example of government inefficiency.
"The technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government," Obama said, joking that he had to fight just to get a Blackberry for his own use. "Many [government employees] will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at the desks at their work."
He also noted repeated failures in technology upgrades that often far outstrip cost estimates, don't meet government needs, and take so long that technologies become obsolete before ever being implemented.
"We've got to get the best bang for every single dollar that the government has in its possession," he said. "And when Washington lags a generation behind in how we do business that has real and serious impact on people's lives. When we waste billions of dollars, in part because our technology is out of date, that's billions of dollars we're not investing in better schools for our children, in tax relief for our small businesses, in creating jobs and funding research to spur the scientific breakthroughs and economic growth of this new century."
The collection of CEOs at Thursday's meeting included the leaders of Microsoft, UPS, Whirlpool, United Airlines, Staples, J. Crew, Cargill and Alcoa, as well as dozens of others, who discussed their ideas with deputy secretaries, agency CIOs, White House officials and union representatives in five sessions on streamlining operations, transforming customer service and maximizing technology return on investment.