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New U. S. CTO Brings Innovation and Accountability to Government

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2009-12-08 Print this article Print

Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first CTO, intends to improve public access to government data, help bridge the ‘digital divide’ and overhaul the way that digital health records are stored.

As the nation’s first-ever chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra recently shared a typical day’s routine with Baseline: He’s up just after 6 a.m. feeding his infant daughter, Devan. He then heads to the White House for a staff meeting with President Barack Obama and two dozen senior advisers.

Next, there are meetings with leaders of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, part of the Executive Office of the President, in which Chopra’s new position is based. An interview with C-SPAN follows, as well as a conversation with Jim Bennett, a vice president at Netflix.

That’s right: Netflix. It’s part of Chopra’s plan to find ways for the government to adapt the best enterprise technology practices of the private sector and—even more ambitiously—transform federal agencies into leaders of technology innovation. In this case, Bennett is behind Netflix’s recent offer of $1 million to anyone who can come up with an algorithm that improves its online movie picks service.

“Netflix recently got a lot of press for using volunteer teams to improve the quality of its online movie recommendations,” Chopra says. “I’m interested in how we can take from that to possibly improve the value of public services.”

It’s clear that Chopra has wasted no time in seeking to establish the purpose and reach of his office. Named to the position by the president in April, Chopra arrived in Washington after serving as secretary of technology for the state of Virginia, the first state to create such a position. Reporting directly to Obama, Chopra intends to improve public access to government data, help bridge the “digital divide” by expanding broadband throughout the country and overhaul the way digital health records are stored, among other goals.

His ties to the IT industry are deep: Chopra was a co-founder of Avatar Capital, an angel funding network, and co-president of TiE-DC, a networking organization for tech entrepreneurs. After he left the private sector for the Virginia post in 2005, Chopra introduced Web 2.0-style tools for health care professionals in rural areas and led a state-sponsored venture capital fund to increase tech resources in state agencies.

Chopra recently spoke with Baseline about his state government experience, as well as his current role and goals, and explained how he’d like executives overseeing enterprises in private industry to work closely with the White House.

Baseline: In the past, your job was called the associate director for technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. While you still hold that title, it’s the CTO position that’s been added. So what can you do now that the associate directors of the past couldn’t do?

Aneesh Chopra: That’s simple. I’m reporting directly to the president, and I’m on his senior staff. I serve on his domestic policy and national economic councils. I work on a broad range of issues—health care reform, energy, education. In the past, I [would have been] working mainly just on telecom issues. The range of responsibilities is much broader now.

How did your experience as Virginia’s first secretary of technology help prepare you for the White House job?

Chopra: It helped me appreciate the differences in how business gets done in the public versus the private sector. There’s a new language to learn in the public sector. You have “stakeholders,” not “shareholders.”

When you want to get something done in the private sector, you convene a meeting, come to a decision and execute it. There are internal processes, tied to the cost of investment and the problem that needs to be resolved, but the lines of accountability are so much greater in the public sector. There’s more vetting and need for transparency. Each step is a formal process, with legal review. The level of freedom isn’t the same.

Dennis McCafferty is a freelance writer for Baseline Magazine.
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