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10 Questions For Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra

Chopra talks about the role of technology in government policy, and advancing Obama's healthcare IT, smart grid, education technology, and economic development agendas.

J. Nicholas Hoover

June 15, 2009

7 Min Read

During the 2008 presidential election campaign and then again after his confirmation, Barack Obama caused a considerable buzz in the tech community by promising to appoint the nation's first federal chief technology officer to drive a wide range of innovation policy.

Last week, InformationWeek sat down with new federal CTO and assistant director for technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Aneesh Chopra at his office, a stone's throw from the White House, to talk about his role.

InformationWeek: How do you define your role and responsibilities?

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra: As the associate director for technology within the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to provide thought leadership on the role of technology in government policy, [for example] how might we advance an R&D agenda on information security, how might we look for opportunities for innovation in biotechnology and the energy grid.

I [also] serve as chief technology officer. The president has acknowledged we are undergoing a fundamental transformation in our economy largely driven by technology innovation and asked that, in his senior leadership, he would like the voice of technology innovation to be at the table in major decisions.

InformationWeek: Talk about that for a minute. Where at the table are you?

Chopra: I sit in the White House staff meeting every morning, led by Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff. I serve on the National Economic Council, as well as the Domestic Policy Council.

InformationWeek: How often do you talk to the president?

Chopra: As needed. I've been on the job now officially since the 23rd of May, so it's been just over two and a half weeks. I've been in events with the president but have not had a policy issue that warranted his attention.

InformationWeek: Tell me about the team that you have working around you. Which offices fall under your purview?

Chopra: Working for me are Beth [Noveck, deputy CTO for open government] and a few on-detail staff members. Agencies might detail a research thought leader to the White House in support of a larger mission. We have the lead for the national nanotech initiative, we have leaders for NASA engaged on aviation and space issues, we have staff focused on cybersecurity, and open government.

InformationWeek: Let's get into your priorities. What are they?

Chopra: These are general pillars, and I look forward to sharing specific deliverables that I intend to focus upon soon.

The four vision categories are: to support the nation's economic growth strategy through improvements in technology-based innovation; addressing the modest number of presidential priorities -- the list includes healthcare IT, smart grid, education technology, and economic development; deploy secure, resilient, next-generation digital infrastructure with a focus on broadband and cybersecurity; and instilling a culture of open, innovative government.

InformationWeek: How do you make sure government doesn't stray too far into picking winners and losers?

Chopra: This office will focus on opportunities to spur private sector innovation and bring that innovation into government.

InformationWeek: How do you do that?

Chopra: The first policy lever is in the president's fiscal '10 budget. He has called for regional innovation clusters. I saw from my seat in Virginia the power of collaborating with Maryland and Virginia and D.C., specifically the power of building university alliances, a small example of what is possible if you promote regional innovation clusters.

Second, we will focus on better understanding of innovation as it relates to economic growth.

Third, this notion of university technology transfer is well-known and improvement in that process would benefit the goal.

InformationWeek: Our readership represents IT pros and IT management across the country. What should folks like CIOs and just IT pros in general be thinking about right now?

Chopra: Emerging CIOs are focused on ways they can deliver value to the business, whether that be to help spur a new business within the corporation, new product development, [or] new methods by which they create value for customers. I want to listen to the policy challenges and opportunities to support CIOs interested in pursuing top-line growth.

I want to challenge CIOs to think about ways in which their products and services might advance presidential priorities. If you are the developer of a product that could be repurposed in support of the president's healthcare agenda, or to lower energy costs, we need to start getting people to apply their brainpower and their creativity in ways that the traditional approaches to solving our nation's challenges might not quite understand.

InformationWeek: Let's drill into the opportunities that you see there, and what you're looking for on that front.

Chopra: There may be opportunities for applied R&D that are narrowly scoped toward presidential priorities, that might have to do, for example, with speech recognition in a physician's office. That's not really a core part of our healthcare IT infrastructure, but might be critical and game-changing if we have an effective platform. That may be an example where we try to find, through public policy, potential public-private-academic collaborations in applied R&D.

There may be beta testing opportunities for products that might not traditionally meet all the specs of a procurement or grant but are ready for consideration, just not traditionally adopted. For example, in Virginia, we formed a collaboration between hospitals, health insurance companies, and state government in the purchase of a platform for more streamlined e-commerce in healthcare. That's an example where there is a seat at the table for public-private-academic collaboration.

The third area between basic R&D and procurement is pursuit of open data standards for innovation. Envision a world in which the energy world had a simple and common way of producing information on consumption, and a private entrepreneur could capture that information, build a widget that tells me to do my laundry at 6, not 4, because it will avoid peak load.

InformationWeek: A lot of companies and CIOs are looking at the economic situation and are saying, I've got to look more strategically at whatever I can and can't do right now, and on the other hand, you've got others saying technology will help lead us out of the recession. What's your perspective?

Chopra: This is the best time for information technology products and services if focused on the right problems. Incremental IT investment for legacy maintenance is not top of mind -- you might defer your PC refresh. Investments in game-changing ideas to improve the quality of products and services are very likely on the CEO's agenda. We may see a shift in where we see IT capital being deployed to those areas which will improve product quality and customer service, because that will likely differentiate the firm. It is hard for me to believe firms that will succeed and lead us out of this recession; I can't envision a scenario in which they didn't produce some game-changing innovation led by technology.

InformationWeek: What do you do in terms of working with [federal CIO] Vivek [Kundra]? Do you talk to him regularly?

Chopra: Every day. Every day. It is important in this environment that there's a level of trust as we start to create that which didn't exist before. We are blessed in the Obama administration that the president's chief performance officer was one of my first mentors and the nation's first chief information officer was one of my dearest friends.


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About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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