Obama’s New CTO Will Be Innovation Ambassador
Obama’s New CTO Will Be Innovation Ambassador
Obama’s New CTO Will Be Innovation Ambassador

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    A word to the wise for those who might have occasion to work with Aneesh Chopra, President Obama’s newly designated Chief Technology Officer, from a colleague who has worked with him for the past three years: “Put on your roller skates. He moves at 100 miles an hour.”

    That’s from Karen Jackson, head of Virginia’s Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance, no slouch in the moving-quickly department herself. The White House announced Chopra’s appointment on Saturday. Chopra is Virginia’s Secretary of Technology for Virginia, the agency that includes Jackson’s office.

    Chopra’s appointment, along with Vivek Kundra (another former official in Virginia’s state government) as the Chief Information Officer, form what looks to be an Inside-Outside team for technology development, including broadband. The CIO is Mr. Inside, working to use information technology to help transform how the government works. The CTO will develop national strategies for using advanced technologies, working on a much larger canvas. His job will be to use his “bully pulpit” to foster private sector innovation, whether in education, health, or any other part of the economy. Obama described Chopra’s portfolio in his Saturday speech: “Aneesh will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities – from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure.”

    The part about fostering innovation is heartening because the Administration is slowly if gradually building up a roster of dedicated officials to help move the government along technologically, as PK and several other groups recommended in a letter to the Administration earlier this month. The appointment of Alec Ross as a senior State Department advisor for innovation was another welcome sign that those who favor technological progress are making their presence known, even as the Administration also is finding room for numerous attorneys who have their roots in the tech-mandate-centric entertainment industry.

    Chopra knows first hand that the keys to innovation don’t always involve the development of technology. It involves removing barriers to innovative behavior. Jackson said one of Chopra’s best skills is that he “knows how to unbundle bureaucracies.”

    “Aneesh doesn’t see hard boundary lines like others do,” Jackson said. That will give him the ability to “engage the private sector in ways that hadn’t been done before. One of his big things it to look across silos, and not see lines as black and white, as they have always been.”

    One example is a program to make educational material available online through iTunes. Announced on April 7, the “Virginia on iTunes U” program features free access to educational content through iTunes. It took engaging the state Education Department to make that program come to fruitition, as Chopra realized through family experience that some people don’t learn well in traditional settings. Another program combined the General Education Degree (GED) high-school equivalency with a Microsoft certification. That project took in representatives of the adult education sector, cable industry and two state secretariats in order to make the program a reality. “That’s partnering, and teaming that doesn’t go on regularly,” Jackson said. But the pulling together of cross-function teams is something at which Chopra excels, she added: “It took a while to warm up to that at the state level. It was one of those things that push people outside of their comfort zone. That’s not a bad thing.”

    Another example is the 72-member state broadband task force that drew from every part of the state to come up with a policy and plan for bringing broadband to areas which have been slow to receive it. That project worked and has been continued as an advisory council in legislation signed by Gov. Tim Kaine (D).

    One of his big jobs when entering the Federal government will be to look at the stimulus programs, not as an end game, but as a starting point, to make sure programs and networks are sustainable beyond the first infusion of Federal money. It won’t be business as usual when Chopra attacks those programs. Instead, as he did in Virginia, Chopra “encouraged everybody and forced everybody to think outside the box,” Jackson said, describing her soon-to-be-former boss as “a visionary, big-picture kind of person.”

    He will need all of those skills, perhaps not to work within government as he did in Virginia, but within the contentious private sector, outside of government. Those barriers can be as intractable, if not more than, governmental ones. Its one thing to get two governmental departments to sit down which never talk with each other to agree on a common approach to a problem, and no one should minimize the internal cultural and other barriers. It’s quite another level of challenge to persuade a company to work with a competitor in a different industry, or even within its own sector, on a common problem or project.