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Open innovation works in the public sector, say federal CTOs

In his last day in office, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra released an open innovation toolkit.

President Barack Obama named Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first chief technology officer in April 2009. In the nearly three years since, he was a tireless, passionate advocate for applying technology to make government and society work better. If you’re not familiar with the work of the nation’s first CTO, make sure to read Nancy Scola’s extended “exit interview” with Aneesh Chopra at the Atlantic. where he was clear about his role: “As an advisor to the president, I have three main responsibilities,” he said: “To make sure he has the best information to make the right policy calls for the country, which is a question of my judgment.”

On his last day at the White House, Chopra released an “open innovator’s toolkit” that highlights twenty different case studies in how he, his staff and his fellow chief technology officers at federal agencies have been trying to stimulate innovation in government.

Chopra announced the toolkit last week at a forum on open innovation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. The forum was moderated by former Virginia congressman Tom Perriello, who currently serves as counselor for policy to the Center for American Progress and featured Todd Park, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services CTO, Peter Levin, senior advisor to the Veterans Affair Secretary and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs CTO, and Chris Vein, deputy U.S. CTO for government innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Video of the event is embedded below:

An open innovator’s toolkit

“Today, we are unveiling 20 specific techniques that are in of themselves interesting and useful — but they speak to this broader movement of how we are shifting, in many ways, or expanding upon the traditional policy levers of government,” said Chopra in his remarks on Wednesday. In the interview with the Atlantic and in last week’s forum, Chopra laid out four pillars in the administration’s approach to open innovation:

  • Moving beyond providing public sector data by request to publishing machine-readable open data by default
  • Engaging with the public not simply as a regulator but as “impatient convener”
  • Using prizes and competitions to achieve outcomes, not just procurements
  • Focusing on attracting talented people to government by allowing them to serve as “entrepreneurs-in-residence.”

“We are clearly moving to a world where you don’t just get data by requesting it but it’s the default setting to publish it,” said Chopra. “We’re moving to a world where we’re acting beyond the role of regulator to one of ‘impatient convening.’ We are clearly moving to a world where we’re not just investing through mechanisms like procurement and RFPs to one where where we’re tapping into the expertise of the American people through challenges, prizes and competition. And we are changing the face of government, recruiting individuals who have more of an entrepreneur-in-residence feel than a traditional careerist position that has in it the expectation of a lifetime of service. “

“Entrepreneurs and innovators around the country are contributing to our greater good. In some cases, they’re coming in for a tour of duty, as you’ll hear from Todd and Peter. But in many others, they’re coming in where they can and how they can because if we tap into the collective expertise of the American people we can actually overcome some of the most vexing challenges that today, when you read the newspaper and you watch Washington, you say, ‘Gosh, do we have it in us’ to get beyond the divisions and these challenges, not just at the federal government but across all level of the public sector.”

Open innovation, applied

Applying open innovation “is a task we’ve seen deployed effectively across our nation’s most innovative companies,” writes Chopra in the memorandum on open innovation that the White House released this week. “Procter & Gamble’s “Connect+Develop” strategy to source 50% of its innovations from the outside; Amazon’s “Just Do It” awards to celebrate innovative ideas from within; and Facebook’s “Development Platform” that generated an estimated 180,000 jobs in 2011 focused on growing the economy while returning benefits to Facebook in the process.”

The examples that Chopra cited are “bonafide,” said MIT principal research professor Andrew McAfee, via email. “Open innovation or crowdsourcing or whatever you want to call it is real, and is (slowly) making inroads into mainstream (i.e. non high-tech) corporate America. P&G is real. Innocentive is real. Kickstarter is real. Idea solicitations like the ones from Starbucks are real, and lead-user innovation is really real.”

McAfee also shared the insight of Eric Von Hippel on innovation:

“What is changing,” is that it is getting easier for consumers to innovate, with the Internet and such tools, and it is becoming more visible for the same reason. Historically though the only person who had the incentive to publicize innovation was the producer. People build institutions around how a process works and the mass production era products were built by mass production companies, but they weren’t invented by them. When you create institutions like mass production companies you create the infrastructure to help and protect them such as heavy patent protection. Now though we see that innovation is distributed, open collaborative.”

In his remarks, Chopra hailed a crowdsourced approach to the design of DARPA’s next-generation combat vehicle, where an idea from a U.S. immigrant led to a better outcome. “The techniques we’ve deployed along the way have empowered innovators, consumers, and policymakers at all levels to better use technology, data, and innovation,” wrote Chopra in the memo.

“We’ve demonstrated that “open innovation,” the crowdsourcing of citizen expertise to enhance government innovation, delivers real results. Fundamentally, we believe that the American people, when equipped with the right tools, can solve many problems.” To be fair, the “toolkit” in question amounts more to a list of links and case studies than a detailed manual or textbook, but people interested in innovating in government at the local, state and national level should find it useful.

The question now is whether the country and its citizens will be the “winners in the productivity revolutions of the future,” posed Chopra, looking to the markets for mobile technology, healthcare and clean energy. In that context, Chopra said that “open data is an active ingredient” in job creation and economic development, citing existing examples. 6 million Californians can now download their energy data through the Green Button, said Chopra, with new Web apps like Watt Quiz providing better interfaces for citizens to make more informed consumption decision.

More than 76,000 Americans found places to get treatment or health services using iTriage, said Chopra, with open data spurring better healthcare decisions by a more informed mobile citizenry. He hailed the role of collaborative innovation in open government, with citing mobile healthcare app ginger.io.

Open government platforms

During his tenure as US CTO, Chopra was a proponent of open data, participatory platforms and one of the Obama administration’s most prominent evangelists for the use of technology to make government more open and collaborative. Our September 2010 interview on his work is embedded below:

In his talk last Wednesday, Chopra highlighted two notable examples of open government. First, he described the “startup culture” at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, highlighting the process by which the new .gov agency designed a better mortgage disclosure form.

Second, Chopra cited two e-petitions to veto the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act on the White House e-petition platform, We The People, as an important example of open government in actions. The e-petitions, which gathered more than 103,000 signatures, are proof that when citizens are given the opportunity to participate, they will, said Chopra. The White House response, which came at a historic moment in the week the Web changed Washington. “SOPA/PIPA is exactly what We the People was meant to do,” Chopra told Nancy Scola.

Traditionally, Congress formally requests a Statement of Administration Policy, called a “SAP.” Requests for SAPs come in all the time from Congress. We respond based on the dynamics of Washington, priorities and timelines. One would argue that a Washington-centric approach would have have been to await the request for a SAP and publish it, oftentimes when a major vote is happening. If you contrast that were SOPA/PIPA was, still in committee or just getting out of committee, and not yet on the floor, traditionally a White House would not issue a SAP that early. So the train we were on, the routine Washington line of business, we would have awaited the right time to issue a SAP, and done it at congressional request. It just wasn’t time yet. The We the People process flipped upside-down to whom we are responsible for providing input. In gathering over a hundred thousand signatures, on SOPA/PIPA, the American people effectively demanded a SAP.

Innovation for healthcare and veterans

“I think people will embrace the open innovation approach because it works,” said Todd Park at last week’s forum, citing examples at Novartis, Aventis and Walgreens, amongst others. Park cited “Joy’s Law,” by Sun Microsystems computer science pioneer Bill Joy: “no matter who you are, you have to remember that most of the smart people don’t work for you.”

Part of making that work is opening up systems in a way that enables citizens, developers and industry to collaborate in creating solutions. “We’re moving the culture away from proprietary, closed systems … into something that is modular, standards-based & open, said Peter Levin.

If you went to the Veterans Affairs website in 2009, you couldn’t see where you were in the process, said Levin. One of the ways to solve that problem is to create a platform for people to talk to each other, he explained, which the VA was able to do that through its Facebook page.

That may be a “colossal policy change,” in his view, but it had an important result: “the whole patronizing fear that if we open up dialogue, open up channels, you’ll create a problem you can’t undo – that’s not true for us,” he said.

If you want to rock and roll, emphasized Park, don’t just have your own smart people work on a challenge. That’s an approach that Aventis executives found success using in a data diabetes challenge. Walgreens will be installing “Health Guides” at its stores to act as a free “health concierge,” said Park, as opposed to what they would have done normally. They launched a challenge and, in under three months, got 50 credible prototypes. Now, said Park, mHealthCoach is building Health Guides for Walgreens.

One of the most important observations Park made, however, may have been that there has been too much of a focus on apps created from open data, as opposed to data informing policy makers and care givers. If you want to revolutionize the healthcare industry, open data needs to be at the fingertips of the people who need it most, where then need it most, when they need it most.

For instance, at a recent conference, he said, “Aetna rolled out this innovation called a nurse.” If you want to have data help people, built a better IT cockpit for that nurse that helps that person become more omniscient. Have the nurse talk over the telephone with a human who can be helped by the power of the open data in front of the healthcare worker.

Who will pick up the first federal CTO’s baton?

Tim O’Reilly made a case for Chopra in April 2009, when the news of his selection leaked. Tim put the role of a federal CTO in the context of someone who provides “visionary leadership, to help a company (or in this case, a government) explore the transformative potential of new technology.” In many respects, he delivered upon that goal during his tenure. The person who fills the role will need to provide similar leadership, and to do so in a difficult context, given economic and political headwinds that confront the White House.

As he turns the page towards the next chapter of his career — one which sources cited by the Washington Post might lead him into politics in Virginia — the open question now will be who President Obama will choose to be the next “T” in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a role that remains undefined, in terms of Congressional action.

The administration made a strong choice in federal CIO Steven VanRoekel. Inside of government, Park or Levin are both strong candidates for the role, along with Andrew Blumenthal, CTO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In the interim, Chris Vein, deputy chief technology office for public sector innovation, is carrying the open government innovation banner in the White House.

In this election year, who the administration chooses to pick up the baton from Chopra will be an important symbol of its commitment to harnessing technology on behalf of the American people. Given the need for open innovation to addressing the nation’s grand challenges, from healthcare to energy to education, the person tapped to run this next leg will play an important role in the country’s future.

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