HHS CTO Todd Park to serve as the second chief technology officer of the United States

The nation is about to see what an "entrepreneur-in-residence" can do with open data and technology.

The White House has announced that Todd Park (@Todd_Park), the chief technology officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, will step into the role left open by Aneesh Chopra, the first person to hold the newly created position.

At the White House blog, John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote that:

For nearly three years, Todd has served as CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he was a hugely energetic force for positive change. He led the successful execution of an array of breakthrough initiatives, including the creation of HealthCare.gov, the first website to provide consumers with a comprehensive inventory of public and private health insurance plans available across the Nation by zip code in a single, easy-to-use tool.

I knew Park’s young family could be a factor in whether he would be the next US CTO, given that he’d already served longer than perhaps expected. That said, if the President of the United States asked you to serve as his CTO, would you say no?

This is some of the best personnel news to come out of Washington and the federal government under President Obama. Park has been working to revolutionize the healthcare industry at HHS since 2009, and in the private sector as an entrepreneur since 1997. Now he’ll have the opportunity to try to improve how the entire federal government works through technology. It’s a daunting challenge, but one that he may have been born to take on. Park is charismatic, understands technology on a systems level, and has been successful in applying open innovation and a lean startup approach to government at HHS.

White House director of digital Macon Phillips was “thrilled” about the choice:

As a close observer of the impact of technology on government, it’s extremely exciting to hear that HHS’s “entrepreneur in residence” is moving into a much bigger stage. Park’s entrepreneurial energy and experience drive both his outlook and execution. He also seems to grok project management, which former US CIO Vivek Kundra identified as a core skill to encourage in the public sector. If he’s able to harness the power of data to the benefit of the entire country, the outcome could be massive public good.

It’s a shame more “Todd Parks” don’t serve in government — but then there are very few of them in the world.

On a 30,000-foot level, his personal story is deeply compelling. He’s the son of a brilliant immigrant who came here from Korea, attained a graduate-level education, spent his career in a company in the United States and raised a family, including a son who then went on to live the American dream, founding two successful healthcare companies and retiring a wealthy man.

From a 2008 interview on Park’s background:

“My father emigrated to the United States from rural South Korea in the late 60s on a scholarship to the University of Utah. He got a PhD in chemical engineering and joined Dow Chemical. He worked there for the next 30 years. He actually has about 72 patents, more patents than anybody in Dow Chemical’s history except for Dr. Dow himself.

He raised me in a small town in Ohio. He sacrificed a lot to try to give me the best options he could. I went to Harvard for my undergrad education. I actually wanted to be in the Naval Academy and I really had my heart set on that, but then Dad and Mom sat me down one evening and said, “Son, no pressure, but we’ve wanted you to go to Harvard since before you were born.” The way they said, that I knew there was no hyperbole. I knew they were serious. I said, “Jeez, if you’re that serious about it, fine, I’ll go.” So I went.

In the matter of what I do in my life, nothing will ever compare to what my dad did: growing up in the Korean War, born dirt poor, emigrating to a brand new country, and becoming one of the most decorated chemical engineers in the world. My entire life is a quest to live up to half of what my dad actually did in some ways. That’s my background. We’re an immigrant family.”

That’s a powerful narrative, and one that I think should be compelling to the nation — and maybe the world — right now. Park was a successful entrepreneur, retired in his thirties to spend time with his family, and then received the call to enter public service.

As Park describes it, he was planning to retire from the 24×7 life of an entrepreneur, spend time with his young family, and become a healthcare investor when he received an email from HHS Deputy Secretary Bill Corr asking him to become the HHS CTO. As a long-time admirer of Corr, Park took the meeting.

“At the end of the meeting I said, ‘This is actually a really amazing job. I’d really love to do this job, but I’ll be divorced,'” Park recalled. “Bill replied that that would be bad, and if you’re going to be divorced you shouldn’t do this job. But why don’t you go back and talk to Amy about it and see what she says?

“So I talked to Amy about it, and she was incredibly angry. But then after four days she came back to me and said, ‘If they’re really creating an entrepreneur in residence job at HHS, it’s your national duty to take that job. And as much as I can’t believe I’m saying this, I’ll move back to the East Coast — which I hate — with our baby, to be there with you.'”

The country needs more examples of public servants like Park and his family. If Facebook, Twitter and other startups mint thousands of millionaires and a new class of founders who can “retire” early, I hope some of them will be inspired and become “entrepreneurs in residence” at the federal, state and city level as well.

Park could be a transformational figure of some magnitude in our history, if the politics, the resources and other external forces — war, natural or economic disaster — don’t thwart his good work. That’s all out of his control, of course, but the prospects here are notable.

For more context on the next US CTO, I’ve embedded my September 2010 interview with Park about his work at HHS below:

And, befitting the timing, here’s an interview with Park about health data from the 2011 SXSW Interactive festival:

Congratulations to Park and condolences to HHS, which will have a hard time filling his shoes.

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