Promoting Technology for Better Governance
Photographs by SEBASTIAN JOHN
The U.S. government’s first chief technology
officer, Aneesh Chopra, spoke with SPAN,
reflecting on his first
year in the position,
and the challenges
and opportunities of
advancing President Barack Obama’s
Describe what you do as chief technology officer for the U.S. government.
My job is to harness the power and potential of technology, data and innovation to transform the nation’s economy and improve the lives of everyday Americans.
How important is it for every American to be connected to the Internet?
The president has been very clear that key to success in the 21st century economy includes universal access to broadband. In the domestic context is where we are focused immediately. We have been working in collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission in the implementation of the nation’s first national broadband plan to do just that. But in analytical terms, universal access is necessary but not sufficient to transform an economy and to empower the lives of everyday Americans. There’s more to be done. And that’s a lot of where I’m focusing. How we think of policy tools—energy, education and health care—in a broadband-enabled world has a slightly different connotation just by having access to the Internet.
“What’s powerful about technology, data and innovation is that we’re not restricted to a computer screen and a keyboard to engage...In rural areas and areas where people don’t have computers, most folks have cell phones.”
How do you see the relationship between India and the United States evolving in the field of technology?
We are hopeful the president will meet with the prime minister in India this year and we are fairly confident that the agenda will include technology and innovation as a key pillar of collaboration. I have been meeting with my counterparts in India and am very confident we will have both formal and informal strategies to strengthen the relationship, which will evolve over time.
What are your top three priorities?
My top priority is to fulfill the president’s vision for an open government that we believe will lead to an increase in government accountability, and an improvement in the way government works by tapping into the expertise of the American people and streamline the method by which we deliver public services by increasing collaboration.
Number two is to engage the [U.S. government] agencies in exploiting technology, data and innovation in national priorities in health care IT, education technology and smart grid.
And third, to collaborate with the private sector to close the lab gap; that is, to increase the rate at which our research investments translate into industries and jobs in the future.
Meaning research at universities?
That’s right. The federal government spends roughly $150 billion a year on research and development in the U.S. A great deal of that is in the area of technology, whether it be nanotechnology, information technology, biotechnology. The opportunities to take the work of our terrific research professors—university professors and also federal labs—and better connect them with market forces, we believe, can lead to a new wave of economic growth. This is, as my mentor Desh Deshpande notes, the idea that innovation occurs at the intersection of ideas and relevance.
Why was the position of U.S. chief technology officer, or CTO, created?
The CTO position builds on an existing position that’s been here for years...and elevates its role.... It was created because the president believes that to tackle the big challenges that we face today, there is virtually no path that doesn’t involve some role for technology, data and innovation. To increase our capacity to find those opportunities and to take full advantage of them, he elevated the role of CTO such that on all major issues that come before him, we have an opportunity to engage where we think the role for technology and innovation can be enhanced on any given issue.
Can you give an example?
Yes, in the president’s Economic Recovery Act, his first major initiative to stimulate the economy, out of the $787 billion of investments, roughly $100 billion of that was on forward-looking innovations, much of which was in the technology domain. Clean energy technologies, health care information technologies, research and development capabilities that are focused on industries and jobs in the future. You can see the president taking action here swiftly—this act was signed in February of 2009. The president established the position of CTO in January—he named it as a member of his team early in his tenure. And then I was officially announced in April, confirmed in May .
Are you bringing the different federal agencies together?
Correct. On any given issue, we lead through the National Science and Tech-nology Council, which is our inter-agency framework. This offers us the opportunity to bring senior level officials from about 25 of the federal agencies that have an interest [in] technology or the opportunity to take advantage of technology. We work together on broadband, on health care IT, smart grid, standards policy and a whole range of issues.
How does your position connect
with Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra?
The CIO position, in place in statute since 2003, serves as the E-government administrator for the federal government. Created by the E-Government Act, the role of the position is very clearly defined in law: to take responsibility for the now $76 billion of information technology spending within the federal government. My colleague, the CIO, has delivered tremendous innovations through the role of government as consumer of information technology. We formally come together in the president’s management agenda by working on the role of technology to not only transform the operating culture of government, but to serve as a catalyst for private sector innovation. So government transparency might help us run the government more efficiently but might also allow an entrepreneur to build a new business on information that’s now more easily accessible from the government.
Is there anything that people in India might find surprising about your experience, especially as an American of Indian descent?
Well, I would say the most shocking thing of all is that the president’s two senior-most technology positions—the CIO and the CTO—were filled by Indian Americans in their 30s. It is unbelievable how committed this president is to excellence, and open-minded in his pursuit for finding talent. I just find the mere fact that I exist in this role alongside a CIO who very much looks and sounds like me pretty exciting.
Can you describe a specific example of how you worked together on something that we can see now?
The very first month we were here, the president asked the CIO and me to collaborate to modernize the citizenship and immigration service customer service. Within 90 days. It came as the president was meeting with members of Congress talking about immigration reform and as part of his strategy he announced that while we are working on comprehensive immigration reform, we must improve the way it works today. And our first step in that process was to reform our communications with applicants. So we accomplished three things by September, which we launched that month at USCIS.gov.
— President Barack Obama
First, we increased transparency on where an application sat once we received it, so we created seven “buckets.” You now know the application has to go through these seven steps in order to be processed, and for the first time you can see where you are in those seven steps online. Second, we felt that the way in which people receive this information should be like Burger King—have it your way. You can come online if you want, or you can register your cell phone number and receive a free text message. That text message would alert you to where you were in those seven steps. I believe 30,000 people signed up for text message service within a couple months of the site launching. Third, we’ve created greater accountability for turnaround times by publishing the statistics online for the average processing times by form type for every processing center within the USCIS. So now you can see how quickly the New York office processes Form 400 against Chicago or Dallas or other
Describe your background that led you to this position.
I began as a member of a startup that went public, in the health care domain but with an increasing focus on technology. So I was with a firm for roughly 10 years called the Advisory Board Company, and following my run there I was invited to serve in the Governor’s Cabinet in Virginia in the position of secretary of technology. It was the first such cabinet-level position of any state government in the country on technology that had been established about six years prior to my appointment. So I was the fourth. I joined in January 2006. The president, in calling for the creation of the CTO position, looked at states like Virginia as a model, so I was honored to have served in the position that had some role in shaping what the federal role would be.
How will new technology impact health record keeping?
In the current regulation that we put out in December as part of the Economic Recovery Act, [it] suggests that doctors who want to use the information technology incentive program must provide their patients with an electronic copy of their medical records within 48 hours of a request. You could start to store electronic versions of your records, and new businesses will be created to help you manage all of that information when you get it. This will give you the freedom and the tools to manage your own health information.
How will the information be secured?
We’re setting policies and standards for security and privacy. If you get a copy of the record yourself, it’s in your control, so all you have to do is have a secure connection to get it from the doctor’s office into your hands, and that process can be relatively easy to keep secure and private.
How did you develop an interest in the field of technology?
I’ve always been fascinated by innovation and entrepreneurship. Part of my responsibility in serving the health care industry was to think about new products and services, new ideas to help bend the health care cost curve, improve quality and increase customer satisfaction. Increasingly you could not do any of those things without some technology program.…
What did you study in school?
I studied undergraduate health care policy at Johns Hopkins, and health care policy was the subject of my Master’s thesis at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Did you have a favorite gadget as a child?
I was a subscriber to Compute Magazine and I would write programs—mostly games—as a child with the computers my parents had given me, starting with my Apple II-e and the Commodore VIC 20, and eventually into the PC world.
What is the evolving role of social networking in government in the 21st century?
First, it allows for more frictionless participation. We just put out a request for information on Scientific Grand Challenges through the traditional process of posting a notice in the Federal Register. And we added a blog. And very few people responded. We then took the same request, two days before the deadline, and posted it on Twitter and Facebook, on the president’s account, and 1.5 million people re-tweeted or pasted a link to the request and over 2,000 comments were registered and nearly 700 formal submissions were sent to our e-mail inbox—all within 48 hours. That points to the same topic, same concept, same request—we just used social networking.
Two, we’re seeing greater collaboration in the delivery of government. So, we launched this website NHINdirect.org, the Nationwide Health Information Network, back on the health care IT theme, that asks how do we safely and securely transmit health care data by using social networking in the context of Web 2.0 capabilities, wikis and so forth. From this, we’ve been able to build multiple, real time, virtual teams, open to anybody, made up of individuals, companies and researchers, who are designing the standards, protocols and policies so we can deliver on that safe and secure transmission of health care data.
And then third, it has improved our policy making, because now before we issue major reports or strategies, we open up for public comment in new and creative ways. The national education technology plan was just released a month ago, and it was released in a draft form on a wiki that allowed for comments, and for people to vote each other’s comments up or down. And that helped to inform our final product, as was our open government initiative, which began with social networking tools that would allow for folks to collaborate on recommendations for what open government should mean for the president.
What about for citizens with less access to or comfort with the latest technology, such as older Americans or those in rural areas?
What’s powerful about technology, data and innovation is that we’re not restricted to a computer screen and a keyboard to engage. So we launched a program called Text4Baby, which actually was an innovation in rural Africa, where pregnant women can sign up to receive three maternal and child wellness information text messages a week at no charge. We established a collaboration in the U.S. to work with the cell phone carriers to waive text message fees and with nonprofits who financed the content development and software, so that in less than three months over 35,000 women have signed up to get the information. In rural areas and areas where people don’t have computers, most folks have cell phones. And so you can see the immediate benefits from this for people who had previously not been as connected, mostly poor and many minority populations—it was actually launched in English and Spanish at the same time. Technology, data and innovation can be resources that power on offline product innovations that you may not otherwise know are powered by technology.
What is the most difficult thing about your job?
Time. The demand for what we need to do and the supply of time is an equation not yet in balance.
Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.