The news has now been leaked that President Obama intends to nominate Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. The Federal CTO will be an assistant to the President, as well as the Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He will work closely with Vivek Kundra, the recently-named Federal CIO, to develop and implement the President’s ambitious technology agenda.
According to one background document I was given access to, the White House describes the relationship between the CIO and CTO roles as follows:
The responsibilities of the CIO are to use information technology to transform the ways in which the government does business. The CTO will develop national strategies for using advanced technologies to transform our economy and our society, such as fostering private sector innovation, reducing administrative costs and medical errors using health IT, and using technology to change the way teachers teach and students learn.
Some in Silicon Valley have hoped for one of their own, a CTO with a deep technology pedigree and ties to the technology industry. For example, the Techcrunch coverage leads with the title Obama Spurns Silicon Valley. This is a narrow view.
I’ve been working for much of the past year to understand what many have been calling Government 2.0, and in that process, Chopra has been one of those who have taught me the most about how we can build a better government with the help of technology. He is an excellent choice as Federal CTO, for many reasons:
Chopra has been focused for the past three years on the specific technology challenges of government. Industry experience does little to prepare you for the additional complexities of working within the bounds of government policy, competing constituencies, budgets that often contain legislative mandates, regulations that may no longer be relevant but are still in force, and many
other unique constraints. In his three year tenure as Secretary for Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Chopra has demonstrated that he has these skills. In fact, last year, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers ranked Virginia #1 in technology management.
- The role of the CTO is to provide visionary leadership, to help a company (or in this case, a government) explore the transformative potential of new technology. Try a few of these Virginia technology initiatives on for size:
- the first officially-approved open source textbook in the country, the Physics Flexbook.
- integrating iTunes U with Virginia’s state education assessment framework;
- the Learning Apps Development Challenge, a competition for the best iPhone and iPod Touch applications for middle-school math teaching;
- a Ning-based social network to connect clinicians working in small health care offices in remote locations;
- a state-funded “venture capital fund” to allow government agencies to try out risky but promising new approaches to delivering their services or improving their productivity;
- a lightweight approval and testing process that allows the government to try out new technologies before making a full, expensive commitment.
Chopra demonstrates a deep understanding of the idea that the government is an enabler, not the ultimate solution provider. From the list of initiatives above, you can see that Chopra grasps the power of open source software, Web 2.0, user-participation, and why it’s better to harness the ingenuity of a developer community than to specify complete top-down solutions. In a conversation with me a couple of months ago, he expressed his enthusiasm for the idea of a “digital commonwealth,” a recognition that technology can help us to come together as a society to solve problems and create value through common effort. (See my post yesterday, The Change We Need: DIY on a Civic Scale.)
This digital commonwealth approach can be seen in Virginia’s approach to rural broadband. The Virginia Information Technology Agency has developed a “broadband toolkit” that fosters cooperation between public agencies and private companies, identifying the location of public sector radio towers that can be used for free by broadband providers in order to reduce their costs, and areas with zoning rules that allow for public sector use of private radio towers.
The digital commonwealth reflects an understanding of the dynamics that have led to technology successes like Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone app store: the platform provider creates enabling technology, “rules of the road,” and visibility for participants, and then gets out of the way, leaving room for third parties to create additional value. This is a great model for all future government technology efforts.
Chopra understands that government technologists need to act more like their counterparts in Silicon Valley. As Micah Sifry notes in the TechPresident blog, quoting from a Governing magazine article about the Virginia venture capital experiment:
“More important, and more unusual for the bureaucrats,” says Governing, “he gives them permission to fail. You can’t innovate, Chopra tells them, without taking a gamble every now and then.” He adds, “We need to fundamentally change the culture of government in which change is measured in budget cycles to one in which change is measured in weeks or months.”
- Chopra is a practical innovator. He’s not chasing technology for its own sake. I like this quote from a recent Federal Computer Week story:
Understanding the process or service is always the most important factor, with technology running second. “Service sector innovation is the most important question,” Chopra said. “I’m not as excited about whether or not it’s emerging technology.”
In my own conversations with Chopra over the past few months, this focus on “service sector innovation” has seemed particularly fertile. Our economy increasingly consists of service jobs. Improving the effectiveness of those jobs is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Chopra wants to put technology to work to make us better at health care, at education, at creating a vibrant economy. These are also, incidentally, the goals of the Federal CTO job, as described in one briefing document I reviewed:
One of the primary responsibilities of the CTO will be to leverage American ingenuity generally and new technologies in particular as engines for job creation and economic growth. The CTO’s priorities will include expanded use of technology to boost broadband access, reduce health care costs, enable novel job-producing industries, remove barriers to technological progress, and create a more transparent and interactive government.
Chopra has a real focus on measurement, and on figuring out what really works. For example, the social network for remote health care workers mentioned above was the result of data showing an unusually high turnover rate for these workers. As I once wrote, in If Google Were a Restaurant,
Web 2.0 (or “Live Software”, as Microsoft has so insightfully called it) depends on creating information feedback loops. This is the practical plumbing that makes possible Web 2.0 systems that get better the more people use them.
If we are truly to remake America’s economy with the aid of technology, as the Obama administration has promised, we need to embrace the culture of transparency and feedback. The Federal transparency initiative is a central part of the plan. While there’s a long way to go, the <a href=http://recovery.govrecovery.gov initiative, to report on the progress of Federal stimulus spending, is a critical step in building the electronic nervous system that will help us to understand what we’re spending, where it’s going, and what we’re getting for all that money. Under Chopra’s leadership, Virginia has been in the forefront of driving stimulus transparency down to the state level. stimulus.virginia.gov was one of the first state-level stimulus sites, and has served as a model for other states.
- Chopra has specific expertise in Health Care IT. This is one of the most critical areas where we need to see technology innovation in the coming years. Unless we can get Moore’s Law working in health care, it will eventually bankrupt our already-tottering economy. $19 billion has been allocated to Health Care IT in the stimulus package. We need someone who can help us spend it wisely!
Chopra is incredibly charismatic. This is essential in a role that depends on persuasion rather than outright authority. As Sean Garrett said in an excellent post on the 463 blog:
I highly recommend watching a good portion of the video below. It’s from this year’s Congressional Internet Caucus conference in September.
Chopra may not be a Valley guy, but Silicon Valley is going to like him a lot. He’s energetic, insightful and can speak the language (again, watch the video). He’s no bureaucrat.
And, just because you didn’t previously work for a chip company or an Internet start-up doesn’t mean that you “are not a tech guy” as I just read another blog. Chopra spent a bulk of his career seeing technology in action (for better or worse) in his work in the health care industry and knew that it could and should do better to bring change to the massive sector.
I couldn’t agree more. Aneesh Chopra is a rock star. He’s a brilliant, thoughtful change-maker. He knows technology, he knows government, and he knows how to put the two together to solve real problems. We couldn’t do better.