Appointed in April 2009, Aneesh Chopra’s appointment is one of many where the president places a focus on individuals with tech experience making the appointment one of power.
Aneesh Chopra had a brief moment on the national stage last December, though perhaps not in a way the Obama administration’s chief technology officer would have chosen. He was the butt of a joke on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” as host Jon Stewart called Chopra the “Indian George Clooney” in a skit about transparency in government.
But Chopra’s reaction to the skit showed that he appreciates a good joke, even at his own expense –and especially when it draws attention to the work he loves. “If at the end of the day a few laughs at my expense help advance the president’s policy objectives on open government, I’ll take that trade any day of the week,” he told ExecutiveBiz.
Chopra’s passion for technology and recognition of the role it can play in making government not only more transparent but also more effective and efficient help explain why President Obama chose him to be the nation’s first CTO. He wins high marks both from government officials and the private sector. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine praised Chopra, whom Kaine chose as his CTO in 2005, for “his leadership on the role of technology to transform our health-care and educational systems.” And Rep. Jim Moran, R-Va., said, “I think he is an example of just the kind of bright, energetic, creative, hard-working person we need in the federal government.”
ExecutiveBiz ranks Chopra both as one of the Top 20 People to Watch in the government contracting world this year and as one of the Top 10 Game-Changers in the health information technology field.
“It is refreshing to finally have a national CTO who can strategically bring innovation and technology to address some of the most significant challenges our country faces, like healthcare and security,” Yogesh Khanna, a vice president and CTO at CSC, said after Chopra was chosen for the job. “Aneesh has the pedigree and relevant experience in the public sector to make an immediate impact to modernize how our government leverages technologies to deliver services to its citizens.”
Chopra serves two roles at the White House — assistant to the president and associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Chopra said his role as a presidential assistant “is largely to ensure that the voice of technology and innovation is heard across a wide range of policy priorities — healthcare, energy or education.”
At OSTP, a job that required Senate confirmation, he coordinates tech research and development at federal agencies and works with businesses to pursue the administration’s policy priorities. Chopra’s unplanned cameo on Stewart’s show came at a key point in his tenure, as he and federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra announced the administration’s open-government initiative. In a subsequent interview with ExecutiveBiz, Chopra touted the plan as “a tremendous opportunity for those in the technology sector who wish to serve government better.”
“First, there is a lot of opportunity to support agencies wishing to deliver open government,” he added. “In that regard, I hope there will be a thriving industry of folks who basically professionalize the Web 2.0 space as it relates to agency adoption.”
Chopra cited the private sector’s response to the Patent and Trademark Office’s request for information on a plan to share trillions of pieces of patent data with the public.
“A number of firms have responded to that RFI,” he said. “I’m confident that by early 2010 we will have a program to release patent and trademark data built out of a partnership coming [from the] RFI process, and respectful of security and privacy considerations.”
The Small Business Innovation Research program is up for funding review in Congress this year, and Chopra sees that as an opportunity for private-sector partnerships aimed at open government.
“Historically, technology firms have been adept at bringing in emerging technologies and building a systems approach to the tools to address the needs of the agencies,” he said. “I see that happening as well in this open government philosophy. Small businesses, as they always have, will find value teaming on some of the bigger opportunities.”
Chopra added that the government is trying to expand procurement opportunities for small businesses and listed the Web site defensesolutions.gov as an example. Contractors use the site to pitch tech solutions for the defense sector, but project costs are capped at $300,000 each.
“A small business that feels they can address a defense need as described on defensesolutions.gov should have a very easy way of presenting their idea and then iterating with the agency on whether they can produce that idea through the procurement process without the kind of overhead one usually associates with it,” Chopra said.
Another aspect of his job is serving as a co-chairman of the National Science and Technology Council’s technology committee that he launched in December. Kundra is the other co-chairman. Housed within OSTP, the panel’s mission in 2010 includes: supporting the open-government initiative; implementing the national broadband plan the Federal Communications Commission announced in March spurring innovation by elevating the role of open data standards and architecture; aiding administration R&D efforts; and pursuing cloud-computing opportunities.
Information-sharing among governments is on Chopra’s agenda, too, and he already is reporting progress on collaborations. He noted the technological successes achieved this year in the battle against the H1N1 virus, more commonly known as the swine flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “turned to a demonstration project called ‘Distribute’ that takes more advantage of Web 2.0 technologies to rapidly enroll more than 1,500 emergency departments in the reporting of patients with flu-like illness,” Chopra said. “In addition to promoting data-sharing at the public health level, most participating communities have agreed to report publicly on these statistics available at www.isdsdistribute.org.”
Chopra already is reporting changes in the government’s approach to technology, including a determination to probe the impact of new tools on Americans and their ability to interact with government. He highlighted work at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“They are on a multiyear, billion-dollar-plus program to transform the legacy environment for the immigration experience,” Chopra said. “Thanks to a more customer-facing Web portal, they’re learning a great deal about applicant needs, which are, in turn, helping to shape their thinking on the overall modernization plan. I think you’re going to see that happen more often than not across agencies.”
He said one of his personal goals as CTO has been “taking the conversation outside Washington. “That is a skill that I am trying to build more of over time — the ability to understand all shared needs.” The strategy appears to be working. “I think that as the nation’s first chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra is doing a fine job of speaking to private-sector leaders about bringing their best ideas to government in a spirit of partnership,” Dan Chenok, the senior vice president and general manager at Pragmatics, told ExecutiveBiz. “I am optimistic about that.”