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

By Dennis McCafferty  |  Posted 2009-12-08

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.

You sound as if you get frustrated with that sometimes.

Chopra: Yeah, for those of us who like to act quickly, it can be frustrating. But, in the end, I appreciate the need to do things right. The expedient answer may feel better at first, but the long-term approach assures good decision making.

What accomplishments in Virginia are you most proud of?

Chopra: Actually, it’s an initiative that went into effect just after I left. We were able to begin reforming the way health care insurance contracts were run, to decouple the data and IT elements of contracts from the actual insurance services provided. Before, they were bundled together.

We’d have insurers trying to provide good health care as cost-efficiently as possible [that were] also dealing with the data. Now, there are two different vehicles for the data and the health care insurance services. It’s going to make the process more efficient and less costly. We started this as a prototype in Hampton Roads and hope it will expand statewide.

We also continued a program to expand broadband into rural areas. The settlement money from the Big Tobacco case of the 1990s was designated for this purpose, to give those in Virginia who grew up on tobacco farms an economic boost, to find other options for their livelihoods. It’s an $85 million investment, with 1,500 miles of open-access fiber deployment.

My role was to encourage the private sector use of these networks. One health care company in Lynchburg lowered telecommunications costs by 50 percent in the process.

What are the highlights of the first weeks of your federal role?

Chopra: We were able to make an immediate impact with our Open Government initiative. I was confirmed in May. Within hours, we were able to formally launch this, using Web-based tools that allow Americans to tell us how they’d like the president to conduct the business of open government.

We’ve launched social networking tools like voting features, a blog and comments. We allow users to draft their own vision of an open government plan, put that online and keep tinkering with it. This has produced results. The Department of Veterans Affairs captured ideas on how to improve the veterans’ benefits claims process online that will affect the work of 19,000 front-line workers.

What are your top priorities for your first year in office?

Chopra: The first is to adopt national IT health care standards. We’ve opened up an online forum so private companies involved can have a voice. We want American companies to come up with standards when it comes to data that comes from clinical operations, privacy, security and the reporting quality of health care services.

Then there are the continuing Open Government efforts. We want executives managing large-scale enterprises to have more access to information that can better position them to get government contract awards and increase their access to policy decisions that affect their business.

What are your top goals regarding cloud computing?

Chopra: The first priority is always security. We need to strengthen the capability of the cloud to protect information. Then, it needs to be interoperable, so that if I’m using a cloud and want to switch, it will be seamless.

We also need to make it easier for agencies and companies when it comes to the reusability of intellectual property. Information about projects should be able to be shared. There’s no reason why an agency in Virginia needs to come up with its own software code to account for the purchase of a snowplow, and then another agency in Vermont needs to do the same thing, instead of simply using the Virginia model.

What IT trends personally fascinate you?

Chopra: I love reading about emerging technology prototypes that we never could have imagined before. I recently read an article about how much more [information] you can access about health care now—and how you can use technology and Web 2.0 to improve your level of health care. There’s a site called, in which patients upload all the details of their treatment and exchange information with other patients. It has created an expert peer network.

When you leave your post, what’s one thing you want to say you did?

Chopra: I’d like to be able to say that we started to transform the government into a front-end innovator instead of a back-end adopter. On topics like cloud computing and social networking, we’re ahead of the private sector in certain ways. We want to keep encouraging large enterprise managers to share what they’re doing with us and also share what we’re doing with them.

How personally connected are you? BlackBerry? iPhone? Facebook?

Chopra: All of the above—although I’m less active in social media now because of the White House rules on that sort of thing. I have a BlackBerry and an iPhone, though.

Who’s more connected: you or President Obama?

Chopra: He is! The president is always at the head of the pack.