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Obama's tech titan summit a wasted opportunity

This morning President Obama will meet with an all-star team of 15 tech company executives to discuss four of the most important issues facing America today. The team includes 10 past or present CEOs (including Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer), 3 top corporate lawyers, and Facebook’s (FB) Sheryl Sandberg who is officially Facebook’s COO but transcends org chart ranking.

Per a background memo released by the White House on Monday, the top item on the agenda is a discussion of ways the government can use IT to improve the efficiency and customer service levels of HealthCare.gov. The meeting will also address the economic impact of unauthorized intelligence disclosures (with a federal judge’s smackdown of NSA snooping still fresh in the news), and ways the Administration can partner with the tech sector to accelerate economic growth and create jobs. Finally the President will get input regarding America’s growing income inequality and social mobility.

HealthCare.gov, information security and individual privacy, job creation and national income inequality: if President Obama can make progress on any two of these issues his second term will be considered a resounding success. If President Obama somehow implements solution on all four before his term expires in 2016, it’ll be time to consider making space on Mount Rushmore.

That’s what makes it so disappointing that the White House would appear to be giving today’s meeting about as much thought as a photo opp with a Cub Scout group. Here’s President’s schedule as it appears on WhiteHouse.gov:

One hour and 45 minutes have been set aside for this gathering of corporate royalty.  For comparison’s sake if the group sat down to watch the latest Hunger Games movie the President would have to leave 45 minutes early in order to be on time for lunch with Vice President Biden. One hundred and five minutes wouldn’t be enough time to have a meaningful conversation with anyone in attendance, save perhaps the guy who paid $250 million for OMGPOP.  These are fascinating, brilliant people who have proven themselves capable of changing the world through technology, leadership, and pure mental horsepower.

The 15 people and 3,000 IQ pts assembled in that meeting won’t have enough time to decide on seating. In 12 months this gathering of leaders could figure out a way to colonize Mars. In an hour and forty-five minutes it will be a small miracle if they are able to order lunch without a Lord of the Flies level power struggle breaking out. 

The President has somehow managed to assemble some of the smartest business people in the world in a way that guarantees nothing useful will be accomplished. It’s either the most poorly constructed meeting in history or an unparalleled triumph of media manipulation. Based on the charade that was October’s similar gathering of Wall Street kingpins, the smart money is betting on the cynical photo-op interpretation.

If the stakes weren’t so high for the country, today’s meeting would be darkly amusing. Given the importance of the task at hand the waste of this group’s time calls to mind the words of poet John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been.'”

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