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Meet The Woman Trying to Bring Silicon Valley to the White House

Megan Smith left a job at Google, one of the most technologically innovative places in the country, to be part of something that has been chronically unimaginative -- the federal government.
Image: AOL BUILD Speaker Series: Megan Smith
Megan Smith CTO of United States attends the AOL BUILD Speaker Series at AOL Studios In New York on April 27, 2015 in New York City.Adela Loconte / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

When it comes to digital innovation, President Obama's top technology adviser says the federal government is like a Ford Mustang in need of roadside assistance.

“I think the issue that we’ve had in government is that we have been missing our technical team there," said Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. "And it’s not that tech would solve everything, it’s just that having them in the room -- it’s like having an awesome car with flat tires. This group comes and joins these other talented people and you can pump up the tires so you can fly down the road.”

Smith left a job at Google in 2014 to become the third U.S. technology officer, a position created by President Barack Obama on his first full day in office.

The importance of such a role became disastrously apparent in 2013 after the botched rollout of Smith’s predecessor, Todd Park, spent much of his tenure working to correct the flawed website. The embarrassing beginning to President Obama’s signature legislative achievement resulted in the creation of the U.S. Digital Service, which has since been focused on projects like coordinating data during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and improving online services for veterans.

But digital improvements will require help from people well outside Washington. That's why Park is now a White House technology adviser based in Silicon Valley where he is telling tech innovators how badly their country needs them. And Smith has a long history of working to get more diversity in the tech field, a cause she has continued to push for in the Obama administration. She served as CEO of PlanetOut, a website for gays and lesbians, before joining Google.

“You’ve got Americans who are making Amazon and Facebook and Twitter. That level of American needs to run future government,” Smith said.

The U.S. Digital Service has nabbed stars from companies like Twitter, Apple and IBM for what they call “tours of duty.” The goal is not to bring all of Silicon Valley to Washington, but rather to get young, skilled technologists to consider lending their entrepreneurial talents for short periods of service.

“At the end of the day it’s our country, and the government will be whatever we show up and bring. So if we’re missing certain talents, it’s a problem. And people have been very responsive to that message,” Smith said.

In addition to getting the right personnel to Washington, the MIT graduate serves as an adviser to the president on the biggest technology questions of the day, like net neutrality, broadcast spectrum and privacy. She is a fierce advocate for net neutrality and is credited for helping influence the president’s strong statement last year in support of it.

And though the horror stories of government entities relying on decades-old software and even floppy disks persist, Smith remains optimistic when it comes to the future of technology in the U.S. government.

“We are the only country with an operating rover on Mars,” she said. “We are an amazing country on tech.”