By Jamie Bergstrom.
During his visit to the Duke in D.C. program, Ryan Panchadsaram spoke about his time as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the United States. He is one of the architects of the President’s digital government agenda at the White House. In an effort to modernize how the federal government uses technology, he shapes how an eighty billion dollar budget can be used by federal agencies to deliver their missions in a more effective, design-centric, and data-driven way. However, with an education in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and an early career in the technology sector, many people would assume government is the last place for a person like Panchadsaram, an assumption that was proven wrong
As a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, Panchadsaram was recruited from the private sector to partner with agencies to collaborate on high-profile initiatives aimed at improving lives, saving taxpayer money, fueling job creation, and building a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation within government. He was quickly tasked with rescuing the rollout of HealthCare.gov, the website enabling the President’s signature health care reform law. Helping rescue the site was a multi-month effort that ultimately enrolled over 7 million people into affordable health coverage and showed Panchadsaram the value and potential of government service.
In his words, this short “tour of service” compelled him to stay in government and establish the U.S. Digital Service, ensuring that technologists have a seat at the table as the President and policymakers create new programs and set economic policy. He also worked on implementing the Open Data Executive Order and launching a new Data.gov, which to date has unlocked over 130,000 datasets in health, energy, education, finance, and climate.
Given Panchadsaram’s unique path, we asked for ways to inspire more young people to serve in government, especially those from nontraditional backgrounds. His two-part answer spoke to reality that most Americans do not truly know what government is doing. He thinks government need to use the tools of this generation to better engage with youth. Social media and technological communications, like blogs, are a great way to tell the story to government in a way young people will understand and respond to. He also believes this approach enables youth to reach government and express their concerns. It is his hope that one day this dialogue will demonstrate a need in government for youth participation and diverse thinking.
Panchadsaram also believes society needs to encourage young people to switch back and forth between sectors. His father explained that he served in the Air Force so that his son would not have to. However, Panchadsaram views service as something all Americans should feel obliged to do for their country. Whether that is in the form of military service or a fellowship with the government, young people should identify opportunities for their own tour of service and find time to work for the public sector at least once. Panchadsaram quickly noted that switching back and forth between sectors has been commonplace for some time, but still less frequent among “techies.” He believes targeting young minds in all fields will increase the diversity of thinking and efficiency of the federal government.
Despite the optimism he has in government, we were interested in why Panchadsaram continues his involvement in the public sector as opposed to taking a more lucrative position elsewhere. He responded that he views everything on a scale of impact. In the private sector he undoubtedly impacts his field and consumers, but the scale of impact in government is tremendous. Opportunities in the public sector provide an opportunity to alter policy and positively impact millions of lives. He also mentions the he (along with anyone else) can always go back. He continued to say that his tour of service is not yet complete. Because he views himself as a translator for the technology industry and younger generations, there is real potential in his position and for a shift in government- something that he would like to stay around for.
Finally Panchadsaram was asked whether he fears his work will be eclipsed by government failure. He acknowledges that this is always a legitimate concern at the federal level, however the approach needs to change. Coming from the tech and start-up world, he is used to ideas of beta testing, trial and error, and incubation. However, these practices do not translate to government work. “Ideas and execution are not the same,” he said. Private companies get many chances at success and can fail without criticism, but the government only gets one shot to make it work. Panchadsaram thinks the government should encourage prototyping with the desire to fail early and make small mistakes as opposed to the massive mishaps we witnessed with Healthcare.gov. When Washington culture becomes less concerned with failure, he believes, a greater emphasis on success and best practices will soon follow.